by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Based on an aesthetic novel by Alessandro Baricco, Silk tells the 19th century story of a married silkworm trader who sneaks into the forbidden Japanese countryside to obtain undiseased silkworm eggs, which are no longer available in Europe. While in a remote Japanese village, he becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman who is the concubine of a local warlord. He spends the rest of his life balancing his genuine love for his beautiful French wife with his longing for a woman on the other side of the world, in a sense failing both women, to his eternal sorrow.

Silk is a study in contradictions, in high aspirations failed and achieved in equal measure. If you were to make up one of those top ten lists which seem ubiquitous on the internet, you might list this as one of the ten most beautifully filmed movies you have ever seen. You might also list it as one of the ten most boring. In either case, I would glance through your list and see nothing to dispute. Perhaps I would think you might have exaggerated a bit because you had recently seen the film and wanted to stress your point, but you would not have made an unreasonable claim in either case because it is a film which can never find the proper balance between aesthetics and narrative.

One example will illustrate. The trader makes a trip to Japan. He leaves his French villa in a stately carriage and rides past glorious farms and gardens. He rides interminably in a train car as spectacular vistas pass behind him. He rides a caravan through the Asian deserts in blistering orange heat, and another through the icy Russian steppes in shivering blue cold. He sails through magnificent Asian gorges on 19th century river craft. He stands on the prow of an old-fashioned ocean-going ship and casts a stalwart gaze forward as he proceeds in his final step from Asia to Japan. Then he treks through the forbidding and starkly beautiful Japanese countryside until he finds the picturesque snow-covered village he seeks hidden in a mysterious fog-shrouded valley. Then he returns, and we watch the same journey in reverse. Then he makes the same trip two more times, and the cinematographer repeats the travelogue.

I could cite more cases where the pace of the narrative was destroyed by the magnificent aesthetics: tea ceremonies where the camera follows the intricate rituals performed the concubine's delicate hands, for example, but I think I've made my point. The film is not only languid, but also unrelievedly melancholy. There is far too much narration, and it is done in a whispery, regretful tone. In fact, virtually every word uttered in the film seems formal and lacks passion, as if spoken in confession, even when those words are uttered by Japanese warlords ... even when uttered by Alfred Molina, who is normally a natural and boisterous performer. The entire film is accompanied by either painfully sad Japanese music or the incessant tinkling of languorous and melancholy piano chords.

I really like this director's other efforts, namely 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould and The Red Violin, which could easily have been renamed Several Short Films About the Same Violin. They are intelligent and aesthetic. The Red Violin is a lovely meditation on the nature of beauty, which elements of it are culturally inspired and which are constant across the human experience. It is one of the few "art films" that I endorse wholeheartedly. But there is a key difference between those films and this one. This one has no more plot than any of the vignettes in the earlier films, but drags out five times as long. Or maybe 32 times as long. Another key difference is that the titular violin in the previous film was owned by a variety of people in distinctly different cultures in different eras, thus allowing the filmmaker to weave a rich and piebald tapestry, with the different colors and fabrics provided by the contrasting temperaments of the instrument's owners as well as the diverse mores of the times and lands in which they lived. Silk, on the other hand, is monotonous, even though its settings range from a tiny French village to an isolated Japanese village, because everything seems to be accompanied by the same melancholy tone of music and narration. After what seems like an eternity of whining nancy-boy voice-over which leads nowhere, the film finally does slip in an unexpected plot twist right at the end, but by then most of the audience will have fallen asleep.

The film also has a problem with the conventions it employs. It is about French and Japanese people, but they are all speaking English. So when the Japanese warlord makes the surprising demonstration that he speaks Oxford English, I suppose he is actually speaking academic French, right? Huh? Improbable as it seems that the warlord of an isolated Japanese village can speak like Voltaire, it does not end the mystery of the film's linguistic conventions. The Frenchman speaks to a Dutch trader in English. Is that English representing French, or is it just English? If it is English representing French, then why does the Dutchman address him in French, and then ask him if he is French? If he didn't know that, then why would he be speaking French to him in the first place? This exchange would only make sense in English, right? I don't "get it." To make matters even more confusing, the director required all the English actors playing Frenchmen to speak English with a North American accent. Huh? Why didn't he just let Keira Knightley and Alfred Molina speak in their natural accents? Why does it make more sense for American English to represent French? Again, I didn't understand why the director chose this convention, and it probably hurt Keira's performance because the modern American accent made her seem younger and dumber, more like a 20th century American valley girl than a sensible 19th century schoolteacher. (It made no difference to Molina, who is so good with an American accent that most people think he is American, ala Christian Bale.

Bottom line: I can't recommend the film for most moviegoers, and most critics panned it, citing Michael Pitt's lead performance as especially problematic and disappointing. One can't help but wonder how the same story might have turned out if filmed by Ang Lee and performed by a French and Japanese cast in the proper languages. But I will tell you this: I will buy this film on Blu-Ray, and if the day should ever come when it is shown in IMAX, I will be the first in line that day. For all its flaws, it is a marvel to look at. Cinematographers of disappointing films rarely get enough credit for their work. They are the babies thrown out with the bathwater. (Perfect example: John Bailey's work on Forever Mine.) But the cinematography and locales in this film are so beautiful that I would sit through the entire tedious thing one more time to see these magnificent images. Silk may not be a great drama, but it's a helluva travelogue.


* No features announced  yet.








It was nominated for an Oscar for cinematography.

1.5 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
2 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
2 BBC  (of 5 stars)
8 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
39 (of 100)







6.0 IMDB summary (of 10)








Box Office Mojo. It grossed only a million dollars in a maximum of 122 theaters.








  • Keira Knightley shows her breasts in some very dark sex scenes.
  • Sei Ashina offers full frontal nudity as she undresses for her lover.







Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


A beautiful film. And a boring one.