'Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle' ('Muchos Hijos, un Mono y un Castillo'): Film Review

Mother goes fest.

Having picked up fest awards on both sides of the pond, Gustavo Salmeron’s documentary homage to his extraordinary mother is now making its mark on the Spanish box office.

Some Spanish directors love their mothers. Pedro Almodovar used to include cameos for his, and more recently Paco de Leon has built whole comedies around the extraordinary Carmina. Now it’s the turn of Gustavo Salmeron, whose documentary Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle is a celebration of the life of an extraordinary woman with whom most viewers will probably also have fallen in love by the time the credits roll. Salmeron’s splicing of 14 years worth of home Super 8 and video footage and interviews is messy, but in a good way — a faithful reflection of the vibrant character and her unusual, life-enhancing stories.

Lots of Kids has picked up awards at Karlovy Vary, the Hamptons and now the Spotlight Award at Cinema Eye. Word-of-mouth buzz has made it a rare documentary box-office hit at home, where a small cult has grown up around the remarkable Julieta Salmeron.

The wordy title is dealt with in a few seconds at the start: Kids, monkey and castle were the girlhood dreams of Julieta, a woman for whom the phrase "larger than life" might have been invented. She is now a wired octogenarian matriarch who Salmeron was several years ago smart enough to see as someone worth immortalizing on film (apparently Lots of Kids has been edited down from 400 hours of footage).

The pic's McGuffin is the surreal, tragicomic quest for part of the backbone of Julieta’s grandfather, executed during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, which is now kept somewhere in a box in the huge castle which the family was able to buy for reasons left unexplained: Salmeron wants to give the fragments a decent burial.

Julieta also keeps her parents’ ashes and teeth, and loves Christmas so much that she keeps a Nativity scene going year round in the garden, even under the baking Spanish sun. She's a compulsive hoarder, and indeed the castle and its contents are almost as intriguing as its indomitable central character, with multiple little side-stories satisfyingly coming to live as her boxes are opened and peered into. (One notable possession of Julieta’s is an extendable fork which she keeps by her bedside, to poke her sleeping husband when she wants to check that he’s still alive.)

Julieta’s story is inevitably entwined with that of Spain, and it’s perhaps surprising to learn that her political leanings are right-wing, until we hear that her grandfather was executed by Communists. But the main focus remains on the personal history of Julieta and her family, revealed through a sharply-edited mixture of Super 8, current-day footage — a lengthy section deals with the family’s fall from economic grace during the years of the crash, and the need to downsize without sacrificing Julieta’s immense collection of boxed objects — and interviews conducted by Salmeron himself.

The interviews occasionally feel a little contrived, as though the director is trying to nudge his mother into saying something film-worthy; but the exchanges also serve to point up the closeness of their relationship while also making the comic most of how Julieta feels about having her life recorded in this way.

Some of the later scenes, with Julieta in bed musing on her own forthcoming death, feel uncomfortably intimate, but never in the least sentimental, such is the practical, breezy nature of the woman to practically everything she encounters.

Salmeron and Julieta’s long-suffering husband apart, the other members of the family are often present, but somewhat anonymous, as though they accept their role playing second fiddle to the tough, lovable old bird. Life with Julieta can surely not always have been a breeze, but the film absolutely refuses to broach darker themes. So that what viewers take away from Kids is the sense that even after 80 years of hard living, it’s still possible to live a meaningful, happy and influential existence — an authentically feel-good message for these feel-bad times.

Production company: Suenos despiertos
Cast: Julieta Salmeron, Gustavo Salmeron
Director-producer-director of photography: Gustavo Salmeron
Screenwriters: Beatriz Montanez, Gustavo Salmeron, Raul de Torres
Editors: Raul de Torres, Dani Urdiales
Composer: Mastretta
Sales: Suenos despiertos

97 minutes