Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle (Muchos Hijos, un Mono y un Castillo)
(Spain, 88 min.)
Dir. Gustavo Salmerón
Programme: TIFF Docs (North American Premiere)
Julita Salmerón insists more than once in Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle that nobody outside of her friends and family will have any interest in watching her story. Julita has a point, since family movies often hold little value for viewers who don’t share the genes or immediate concerns of their subjects or creators, but she couldn’t be farther from the truth when it comes to this film. Director Gustavo Salmerón has found a great character in his larger than life mother. Julita’s quirks resonate throughout the extensive range of family videos cut together for this film. No matter how strange, wacky, bizarre, or embarrassing Julita may seem, her kids love her even more, thanks to her eccentricities.
Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, which makes its North American premiere at TIFF after winning the prize for feature documentary at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, is an offbeat and endlessly amusing look at an off-the-wall family legacy as told by the filmmaker’s mother. Salmerón culls together bits and pieces of the family’s home movies and interviews shot across many years in a multiplicity of formats. These odds and ends depict the Salmerón dynasty and its origins through the three things that Julita wished for as a newlywed: lots of kids, a monkey, and a castle. Those three items are an odd medley that speaks to the mother’s kooky personality, and the tale of her making the trio of wishes come true is equally and enjoyably strange.
Filmmaker Gustavo lets Julita explain the story since the fun of this documentary is all in the telling. Every interview with Julita is full of tangents and embellishments. Salmerón finds a true fish story in the family narrative, which Julita playfully reconstructs for dramatic effect. She’s fully aware that family movies aren’t particularly interesting and relishes the opportunity to be an animated storyteller.
The film finds most of its present day action in the sad turn of events that sees Julita and the family packing up the castle. The Salmeróns tell of being hit hard after the 2008 financial crisis, but the film shows that the collapse of the empire was a long time coming. Salmerón and his siblings unpack a treasure trove of knickknacks and potpourri that Julita has hoarded over the years. Each box of strange collectibles has its own story to tell as Julita defends the material goods on which she’s blown muchos pesetas and hung onto over the years. Tours around the castle unpack the stories that reside in all these material things, while the opulence of the décor, which includes a fresco of the family painted atop a doorway, lets the siblings laugh at their quirky legacy.
The vault of random goodies yields a hunt for golden treasure when Julita recalls the bizarre story about one of the collectibles stashed away somewhere in the house: a pair of her grandmother’s vertebrae. Julita spirals into a yarn about her granny’s death during the Spanish Civil War—an event that Julita insists scarred her permanently even though she was only an infant at the time—and tells how the family couldn’t bury the matriarch due to the political unrest and opted to hack out a few bones from her spine as souvenirs. The story precipitates a hunt for the fabled needle in a haystack and the film becomes even stranger when Julita stumbles upon some family urns and rubs her ancestors’ ashes all over herself like balm to soothe her knees.
Salmerón, an actor in his native Spain, makes his feature directorial debut with Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, and it’s an assured and intimate delight. Julita’s sad and funny accounts of her fortune found and lost remind us that the value of family far outweighs the price of a castle or a collection of treasured knickknacks amassing dust in the closet. If any film lets a viewer appreciate his or her mother’s collection of cat shaped wine bottles, this is it.