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By Bill Arceneaux | March 16, 2017

Perhaps doomed to go unnoticed on first viewing, there are lovely and thoughtful moments strung throughout Sylvio, made up of slow gazes and floating / falling particles. Dust in the sun light, bubbles in a fish tank and snow on a street corner provide temporary reprieve from reality and unexpected bursts of clarity for lead gorilla Sylvio (played by himself) and new friend Al (co-director Kentucker Audley). These short bits of time are first used to express the doldrums of unfulfilled life – via a water cooler and kitschy toys first – but as the scenarios shift, so go these bits, matching emotion for emotion. Most impressive and done with little to no dialogue at all, we gather what we need to know and ought to feel about a stone faced gorilla and his exhausted buddy.

For Sylvio, which wears its heart on its sleeve, the funny is not when our hero breaks stuff on cue, but when the absurdly silly meets the dramatically genuine.”

Movies like Sylvio are, in their own way, slapstick. Not in the traditional Three Stooges manner, mind you, but in a more subdued way. A more atmospheric and emotional way. Silently slapstick, I’d say, in the way that I consider Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel a little slapstick. In that film, this goof genre is mostly rude, crude and blunt. For Sylvio, which wears its heart on its sleeve, the funny is not when our hero breaks stuff on cue, but when the absurdly silly meets the dramatically genuine. It’s an almost tragi-comedy of over exaggerated clumsy like circumstances. It reminds me of (despite the stone face reference made a paragraph ago) Harold Lloyd, the everyman involved in the impossible. Our lovable and heartfelt gorilla matches the man with the glasses by being a hopeless romantic who is sensitive and capable of anything. A double bill with Grandma’s Boy might be in the cards.

The plot is, to boil it down, UHF from the point of view of an office clerk version of Stanley Spadowski. Which is, to boil it down again, brilliant. The World’s Greatest Janitor and TV Star trophy holder isn’t as disillusioned when we first meet him in the Weird Al movie, and is certainly more flat out ridiculous than Sylvio’s Sylvio, but he’s just as childlike and fantastical. Being a gorilla, living alone and greeted after work by depressing microwavable dinners, Sylvio’s one outlet of release comes in the form of his puppet show short films, The Quiet Times with Herbert Herpels. This is no Spadowski’s Clubhouse – more “Moral Orel” and Anomalisa. His shows are hilarious on one hand, giving us an inner id that we wouldn’t expect from an everyday working animal. On the other hand, these segments provide terrifically innocent insight into Sylvio’s background, his hopes, his dreams and his worries. They’re enough to bring about teary eyes.

“…Sylvio gave me belly laughs and evocative feels. Thus far, it is my favorite film of the year.”

I was at first concerned that, given the nature of Kentucker Audley’s video essays for The Talkhouse (which are great), Sylvio may be some sort of joke or prank, poking fun at the themes within and the audience without. An Andy Kaufman routine, essentially. But, thinking on it, I came to the conclusion that this doesn’t matter. Kaufman’s comedy was outlandish and utilized trickery for sure, but also came from true places deep inside of himself. He meant no ill will. I don’t believe this movie is a play on our minds, but even if it were, it comes from a good place and would only enrich our collective experience. Yes, it’s a film based on a Vine act. Yes, an app famous gorilla can make do more than perform tricks. No, the slight of hand here is not at our expense nor is it exploiting anyone. Sylvio is hilarious and deeply kind, granting us an adaptation more depthful than expected from internet stardom.     

We could all stand to have the kind of spaced out observational moments of self reflection that Sylvio so nicely performs. Be it stars or rain drops, zoning out American Beauty style, even for a few seconds, might be enough to make one appreciate the little things. Or the bigger thing… am I spinning out of my head? Could Sylvio be such a perfectly constructed trick on critics like me, making us miss the forest for the trees? DID Andy Kaufman fake his own death? Nah. Perception is reality, and intent is usually irrelevant. No matter what, Sylvio gave me belly laughs and evocative feels. Thus far, it is my favorite film of the year. A most disturbing year, but still.

Sylvio (2017): Directors: Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley / Writers: Albert Birney, Kentucker Audley and Meghan Doherty / Stars: Sylvio Bernardi (as himself), Kentucker Audley, Tallie Medel

5 out of 5

The film screens as part of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival and more information is available on the official Sylvio website

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