“This is not what people want to see in a film,” asserts Julita to her son, Gustavo Salmerón, who is filming her for what must be the umpteenth time over the course of 14 years. She waggles her finger, “I know what people like, and it’s not … this.” She’s wrong about that though, which is unusual for her. The indomitable, garrulous, fanciful septuagenarian Julita is many things — aggravating, mercurial, delightful, impossible — but she’s rarely wrong. As if to prove her so in this case, however, her son’s film, of which she is the undoubted star, took top prize in a strong Karlovy Vary documentary competition, having played to a rapturously approving response even during its press screening. Family history documentaries tend to be a bit of a hard sell, but “Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle,” is destined to please crowds wherever it can find a foothold on the festival circuit, all because of the irrepressibly oddball and frankly hilarious matriarch around which it revolves.
There’s something a little bit magic about Julita, something of the fairytale — perhaps that’s her son’s dazzled but sardonic affection transmitting itself through the various cameras (the film cuts between Super 8, digicam and even iPhone camera footage, all chopped down to boxy Academy ratio). But then Julita does physically resemble a live-action Hayao Miyazaki character: one of those mystical grandmothers with inquisitive, mischievous eyes and benign wrinkles. And she has a magical incantation: the title refers to the three wishes Julita recalls making as a newlywed: She was convinced all she needed to be happy were lots of kids, a monkey and a castle.
Six children later (Gustavo, a fairly well-known Spanish actor, is the youngest), Julita and her beloved husband, who is usually seen bustling about in the background, quietly exasperated, were living comfortably if not lavishly, and found their monkey in an online ad. Then, some time after, as though with the wave of a wand (the film is vague on specifics but a large inheritance is mentioned), they became very wealthy, and Julita finally got her castle. This is not a metaphor; it’s a literal castle — a centuries-old, crenelated stone building, set on verdant grounds and furnished with chandeliers and tapestries and suits of armor.
It’s a large dwelling, of many rooms and passageways, but over the course of her time there, inveterate hoarder Julita has managed to cram every corner with junk. Broken sports equipment, rain sticks, a kids cowboy outfit, dozens of broken umbrellas, boxes neatly labeled “Santa hats”: it seems she never throws anything away, which makes finding any one thing a quest through a treacherous sea of paraphernalia. And it gives Salmerón’s jauntily ramshackle film its very loose shape. Amid all the mess, he’s preoccupied with finding a macabre memento of his great-grandmother: two of her vertebrae, which his mother has told him are rattling around somewhere.
During the decade and a half of filming, the worldwide financial collapse happens, and Julita is forced to sell her beloved castle. The six children, and their children, come to help pack up, and Julita expounds further on everything from her politics (vague, muddled) to her marriage (both pragmatic and sentimentally romantic) to her philosophy on life and death (dizzyingly changeable). And there are moments that hint her eccentricity has a darker side. Sometimes, out of nowhere, her bright, quicksilver mind will snag on some sadness and she’ll suddenly declare, “I am not the woman I’d like to be,” or dramatically exclaim, “No wonder I am the way I am! I was breastfed on my mother’s tears!”
But “Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle,” though it depicts the family falling on hard times and Julita tut-tutting about her “suffering,” is primarily a film that overflows with affection, warmth and humor, about a highly dysfunctional but deeply loving clan. In “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy famously declared that “all happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But Salmerón’s film, crammed as full of tchotchkes and knick-knacks and bibelots as one of his mother’s closets, refutes that, presenting an endearingly haphazard portrait of an extraordinary woman and the family she made — one that has discovered its own, completely unique way to be happy.