Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle
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Charming and poignant…
Spanish actor Gustavo Salmerón (Mensaka) takes a break from being in front of the camera for this amusing portrait of his mother, Julita, who, at the age of 81 appears not to have lost any of the fire in her belly that Gustavo and his siblings recall from their youth.
We’re first introduced to the matriarch as she lies in bed contemplating her death. Deciding that she would rather be cremated, she makes an off-camera Gustavo promise that when the doctors declare she’s dead, he must stick a knitting needle into her buttocks just to make sure. If she doesn’t scream, he can burn her. This frankness, laced with a knowing sense of humour, presents itself throughout Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle.
In some ways, Julita feels like the most perfect sitcom character never created. The documentary’s title is born out of the three things she wished for as a child, which she would get, one way or the other, over the next 80 years. She summarises her long marriage to her husband as ‘I’m fat and you’re deaf’, whilst chastising him for not finding her sexually attractive. At night, she falls asleep with an extendable fork next to her bed, so that she can poke him during the night to check if he’s dead. When one of her sons shows concern for her sudden desire to start overeating now that’s she’s over 80, his pleas for rationality are drowned out by her gleefully shouting, ‘bring it on!’ In short, she’s everything we could hope to be as we enter our winter years.
However, Salmerón isn’t just using his film to prop up his mother as a source of amusement for his audience. It’s also an opportunity to give her dignity and allow a voice to be heard that’s not often done so in cinema. Julita talks about her youth and her parents, about how the actions of General Franciso Franco in the Spanish Civil War destroyed her family and her own mental health. When she talks, we see a vulnerability that cuts through her caustic nature. A vulnerability she’s all too aware of, as can be seen when talking about her loss of faith in God, she quickly changes subject to talk about how cute a tiny pair of scissors are.
Apart from two asides, Salmerón stays very much behind the camera, leaving his siblings and father to do most of the interacting with Julita. In doing so, he captures personal moments where it’s apparent that as well as her sharp tongue, the Salmeróns have had to tolerate Juliet’s hoarding which presents itself in a whole warehouse full of items, nearly all of them in labelled boxes, which she refuses to throw away because it would be throwing away a part of her history. And realising, like his mother, that the subject matter is getting too heavy, Salmerón cuts to a scene where he brother questions why Juliet would ever need 20 pairs of maracas. Perhaps, these kinds of tricks undermine what is being said at times, but it seems part and parcel of the family. As if somehow, they’ve leapt out of a Wes Anderson film, eccentricities and all.
Charming and poignant, Lots of Kids, A Monkey and a Castle is one man’s loving tribute to his mother. A love that can be found in every frame.
Screening at ACMI in Melbourne