A speechless soul-searching puppeteer gorilla down on his luck might seem like the worst elevator pitch one could possibly come up with, but Sylvio (2017) ends up being a heartfelt, meditative, offbeat, unpredictable, attentive, and drop-dead hilarious film. Unlike many absurdist narratives that insert one fantastical element and let it play out with the strictest logic—the most famous example is probably Kafka’s Metamorphosis (2012)—this film places its eponymous protagonist (Sylvio Bernardi, obviously not playing himself despite what IMDb says) in a world where his gorilla-ness is treated like just another disability: On answering the door and seeing him for the first time, Maggie (Tallie Medel) blurts out, “Oh! I didn’t know you were . . . come in.” The stigma of his particular disability forms the main conflict of the plot, but the specific development of both stereotype and reality plumbs the depths of empathy, so that from the very second scene we become accustomed to the gorilla suit as not a gimmick but an integral part of Sylvio’s character—as it would be in real life. (The first scene plays with the idea of Sylvio performing a role.) He even has a smiley face tattoo on his arm-hair. This faux-realism is accomplished with some fundamentally cinematic technical execution.
Here’s the plot: Sylvio, speechless but not mute (he grunts sometimes), works as a debt collector, but when at home, his sensitive soul is poured into his amateur puppet TV show, “The Quiet Time,” starring a balding, red-haired, brown-suited hand puppet with both hands held in front facing in, who Sylvio has named Herbert Herpels. One day while trying to collect a debt, Sylvio stumbles onto a low-budget afternoon variety show and accidentally breaks some things. The viewers love this inadvertently hilarious bit (and it is hilarious), so the show’s host, Al (a pitch-perfect “incompetent” Kentucker Audley, also co-directing, -writing, and -editing), invites him back to do it on purpose. This “What’s the Ape Gonna Break?” running segment leads to a partnership, with Sylvio sometimes trying to do his puppet show on air, to little interest. He starts resenting how the public conflates his on-air persona with his actual one. But then Al’s stuff gets repossessed, so Sylvio chooses to take on all sorts of typecast gigs to help get the show back on the air. They succeed, with a (heartwarming but unconvincing) twist.
On paper, it would seem like Al is using Sylvio, but with his toneless on-air line deliveries and not-quite-comfortable-in-his-own-skin body language, Audley plays him as just another lonely soul who could use a friend; he frequently checks in on Sylvio’s emotional state, and always gets his consent before making a business decision. Sylvio, being speechless, leads a quiet, uneventful life alone at home, and when Al loses his house and moves in with Sylvio, it feels as if they were cast from the same mold. Their roommate-ship is also humorously portrayed: One long shot sees them playing dominoes (not playing with dominoes, but the actual game).
Al and the rest of the TV show crew make a minor concession to reality in dealing with Sylvio’s lack of speech; the script always makes sure that Sylvio’s gestures are seen in order to establish communication, and sometimes the other characters can sound a bit patronizing when eliciting these gestures from him. The other mechanics of going about one’s life in a gorilla suit, though, are subtly but pointedly elided over. An early scene repeatedly interrupts Sylvio just as he’s about to put food in his mouth; indeed, despite food sometimes appearing in his hands, his actual eating is cut by the editing and merely implied, and the only time he sips a drink is from a coffee cup with the lid still on. Similarly, the mask is designed as an ambiguous hybrid of smile and frown, so that we can always project a suitable emotion onto him no matter what the situation.
In fact, if you really pay attention to the lighting, cinematography, editing, pacing, and even the score, you’ll start to notice similarities between the main narrative and the short episodes of “The Quiet Time.” Richard Brody compares Bernardi’s performance to the silent age, but it’s actually more like puppetry. To reiterate, “The Quiet Time” isn’t a puppet show, it’s a puppet TV show, starring a ceramic, immobile hand puppet; and staging it as a live puppet show on Al’s program is a key part of its failure to attract an audience. Just like having Bernardi wear a gorilla suit creates constraints elided over with canny editing and sound effects, Herbert Herpels is able to do ordinary things in life (turn on the TV, gather firewood, drink beer, go to bed) thanks to the editing and sound, along with the clever framing of his use of objects of various proportions. The slow, meditative pacing of the film is mirrored in the show and made even more meditative for Herbert, given the show’s lack of narrative impetus: The technical elements are similar, but whereas things happen to Sylvio (that’s the point of any film), Herbert in most episodes just goes about his daily life.
The connection between Sylvio(‘s life) and his puppet(‘s life) is underscored in two sequences. First is when Sylvio gets into a car accident (a hilarious callback of an earlier gag) and, while unconscious, finds himself in heaven. There he meets a live Herbert (John Sheldon) in an absurdist dream sequence, which features the most extensive use of CGI in the film. The sequence is less portentous than most dream sequences tend to be, but the fact that Sylvio and Herbert interact as equals in it tells us that we should see them as such even when Herbert is in puppet form.
The second sequence comes just before the climax, when Sylvio is agonizing over whether to submit to or go against type. He flashes back to the more than six hundred episodes of “The Quiet Time,” including the physical evolution of Herbert from crude clay to polished ceramic, and the emotional evolution of Herbert’s life story, which reveals that he is in fact a widower. It seems that Sylvio has been saddled with the stigma of his gorilla-ness from birth, and Herbert symbolizes his striving to leave behind his “beastly” image in favor of refinement and sensitivity—echoed in his mantra, “Breathe in, chill out.” His fame as a gorilla who smashes things thus becomes an indictment of his viewers, revealing these humans to be more animalistic than the gorilla.
The main quandary of the film, but also its main source of pleasure, is its inability to decide whether to be a realist drama or an allegorical morality tale. The main beats of the story only make sense if it’s the latter, but we only truly care about Sylvio, his plight, and his world if it’s the former. In the end, I think the film’s generic inconsistency is resolved by its tonal consistency, so that we can enjoy the merits of both genres, making the film cohere as an allegorical realist morality tale drama. Whatever it is, it’s good.