Despite the fact that the titular protagonist in Sylvio is a silent, anthropomorphic gorilla who becomes a television personality in Baltimore while working a 9-to-5 job as a debt collector, it would be incorrect to classify the film as surreal.
Instead, it’s more of a deadpan satire, proving that a common story of self-discovery and related struggles can be affixed to any situation – even one as unusual as this. The movie works because it takes us into its world, and its skewed logic, establishing a consistency and environment that we accept. Nobody’s surprised that Sylvio Bernardi isn’t a human. And neither are we. It is but a fact, established in the first scene, and carried through to the finish line.
He is of modest means and, until he’s assigned to visit the home of an indebted man, Al Reynolds (Kentucker Audley), has no real social life of which to speak. Upon arriving, he discovers that Al is the host of a variety show on a local network, and the low-budget program is run out of his basement.
Mistaken for a scheduled guest juggler (an understandable error) by the crew, Sylvio is brought on set to perform the act. He breaks all of the items, but the moment is unexpectedly funny. Well-received by the show’s viewers, he becomes a recurring guest, achieving relative fame with the creative ways he destroys various items.
He is soon known only as a gorilla who breaks things and nothing else. But primates are artists too, and he wants to branch out and do more serious work. This begins a long journey as Sylvio goes through a series of tribulations in a quest for an identity and understanding. It’s similar to character arcs found in many other movies, and the themes it touches upon – media perception, economic desperation and interpersonal growth – are equally familiar.
So it might make more sense to describe Sylvio as an understated cross between genre parody, performance art and genuine deconstruction. The character originated from a popular Vine account, with videos portraying Sylvio navigating normal human scenarios. Six-second videos are adept at distilling a joke to its barest essence, but what makes this film work is how it sustains the tone for almost an hour and a half.
The plot is cumulative, rather than a sounding board for thin strings of sketches. Long fantasy sequences – presented as dream-like pastiches of Sylvio’s hopes and dreams and the obstacles that keep him from getting there – serve as development for a character who never says a word.
There is a degree to which Sylvio cannot escape the boundaries of its own gimmick, but it also may have never wanted to. This puts it in the same odd position that many high-concept, high-maintenance films find themselves in – embracing the oddities of their existence, but restricted to those boundaries.
Audley and his co-director and writer, Albert Birney, keep things short in terms of runtime but run into problems in actually giving Sylvio interesting things to do. A subplot involving him breaking into his old office (from where he’s been fired because gorillas aren’t good debt collectors) and destroying Al’s record in an attempt to rid him of his debts is dependent on the human characters involved. The lengthiness otherwise becomes tedious, and it feels like a burden unto itself.
Yet the movie makes up for it in moments of pure joy (bringing to mind a related car chase), augmented by the lead’s capabilities as a physical actor (leaving one wondering if there is an award for “Best Performance in an Animal Suit”) and the world that Birney and Audley forge around him. Sylvio works for a particular audience: one that finds humor in the deft treatment of the absurd but that also sees a thoughtfulness within.
Sylvio becomes a fascinating individual, managing to escape the cornering of what could have been a single-joke idea and instead anchoring a sly and effective comedy. It’s questionable if the character can anchor a feature film, but the bravery in even trying to explore such a conceit deserves praise. As Susan Sontag (maybe) said, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing.”