Family history documentaries can be a hard sell. At their worst can they can seem like little more than self-indulgent home movies bloated to cinematic length. Directed by Gustavo Salmerón’s transcendent documentary Lots of Kids, A Monkey, and a Castle is just the opposite – a delightful snapshot of an eclectic Spanish family and its winsome matriarch who, upon having to vacate the family castle in the wake of Spain’s economic crisis, unearth a mountain of memories, a lifetime of ephemera, and a mystery about the lost bones of the director’s great-grandmother.
With a twinkle in her eye and a self-deprecating/woe-is-me sense of humor, octogenarian Julieta – the film’s protagonist and director’s mother – calls to mind Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale from the seminal documentary Grey Gardens. Born into modest means, Julieta – who her family affectionately calls Julita – early on desired to attain three things in her life. The first was to have many children and, indeed, this wish was granted in spades as she mothered seven kids – one of whom, Gustavo, is both the film’s director and a well-known actor in his native Spain. Another wish was to have a pet monkey which she received as a gift after her children were born. As with many wild animals, the monkey proved to be aggressive and, sadly, had to be given away. Her third goal was to live in a castle. With a bevy of children and a marriage to a mildly successful engineer, this last desire must have seemed no more than an unattainable childhood fantasy. But, a turn in the world global financial markets, enriched the family beyond their wildest dreams – so much so that Juita was able to purchase and move her family into a regal castle in the Castilian countryside.
“…Juita was able to purchase and move her family into a regal castle in the Castilian countryside.”
With its turrets, elegant chandeliers, gorgeously adorned dining rooms, expansive garden, and a private chapel with a classically painted ceiling, this castle is the real deal. Here, Julita and her husband raised their family together until the global financial collapse of the 2000s. Buried under an unrelenting growing mountain of debt, Julieta and her husband were faced with the sad reality that they had no choice but to sell the castle of her dreams. And here the film really digs in. Filmed over the course of several years in a variety of formats including super 8, video, and digital cell phone footage, the film concentrates upon the final few weeks when Julita and her extended family of children and grandchildren begin the task of moving a lifetime of possessions out of the castle and into a modest apartment. As Julita goes room to room rummaging through items of every description – a child’s cowboy outfit, the handmade outfit of adorning a time-worn doll, suits or armor, and wall-size paintings – she recounts the Salmerón family history. It’s a subtle and effective way of telling what could otherwise be a fairly mundane tale.
“…an intimate, humorous, and heartfelt love letter to the filmmaker’s mother…”
Interwoven throughout the narrative, is a mystery – the search for Julita’s grandmother’s long-lost bones. A casualty of Spain’s brutal civil war, the bones were apparently hidden somewhere in a castle within the seemingly endless pile of boxes that built up over the years. At one point, one of Julita’s sons ruefully recounts an old Spanish belief that if one’s relatives are not buried, then a curse is cast down upon the entire family – thus alluding Julita’s current troubles. It’s an engaging device that propels the narrative towards its surprising conclusion.
At no point did I feel the kind of schadenfreude that I experienced while watching the Queen of Versaille, a similarly themed doc about a family dealing with the repercussions of the global financial collapse of the 2000s. Instead, Julita and her family come across as a caring, loving group who were done in by economic forces beyond their control. Furthermore, the doc is very funny. Several times Julita notes that “I should have been a nun,” and at one point the family even stages a hilarious mock version of her funeral with Julita decked out in a nun’s habit. At its core, Lots of Kids, A Monkey, and a Castle is an intimate, humorous, and heartfelt love letter to the filmmaker’s mother and her indomitable spirit and will to rise above the inevitable pitfalls of life.
Lots of Kids, A Monkey, and a Castle (2018) Directed by Gustavo Salmerón. Lots of Kids, A Monkey, and a Castle screened as part of the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival.
4 out of 5 stars