The Disappearance of My Mother, directed by Beniamino Barrese, is a documentary that seems to be at odds with its intention. The film’s subject, Italian model Benedetta Barzini, loathes being filmed. While there are certainly other documentaries where the subject actively battles the documentarian, the fact that Barrese is Barzini’s son makes the conflict all the more difficult to watch. Barzini is an incredibly interesting and important feminist icon. In The Disappearance of My Mother, she is constantly rallying not just against her son’s lens, but all lenses that have tried to contain her.
Unfortunately, Barrese consistently lets his own goals get the best of him. He has made a film about an amazing woman that feels less like a respectful exploration of her career, beliefs, and fiery passion, and more like an examination of a son’s self-interest getting in the way of his relationship with his mother. The Disappearance of My Mother is a troubling film that might be a brilliant statement about the controlling nature of art, or it might be a glimpse at the selfishness of an adult who is unable to allow his mother to distance herself from her child.
Benedetta Barzini is a model who has a mixed relationship with modeling. As she walks down the runway in her 70s, there is a noted absence of both pleasure and ferocity. She balks at receiving an award for her modeling career, believing that “beauty is not a merit.” Barzini sees the camera as a controlling device meant to subjugate women into confining roles. When she says “the real ‘me’ isn’t photographable,” you believe her. Her son, Beniamino, has been filming her since his childhood.
What started in his youth as little more than low resolution captures of playful moments, has now become something of an obsession. Against her clearly stated wishes, Beniamino films her day and night. Despite her son’s ever-present eye, Barzini wants to “disappear.” She wishes to simply vanish and be gone from her life, seemingly not in a suicidal way but simply dematerializing. Beniamino tries to prevent her from pulling away, with his camera capturing her along with her image.
Benedetta Barzini is a piercing and captivating subject. Her career as a model, activist, and professor is the stuff of a documentarian’s dream. She speaks with the existential longing of a poet, at odds with her everyday existence and her fame’s grip on her identity. Even in private, Barzini can’t distance herself from the camera. The challenging aspect of The Disappearance of My Mother is that it is not exclusively about Barzini. A documentary about a model and the significance of her activism both in the height of her career and decades later is a wonderful package. However, Barrese’s film is as much about himself as it is about his mother. This positioning of Barrese and his camera in Barzini’s life is less the gaze of a loving son and more an unsettling glimpse at unknowing obsession.
Barrese is quick to call Barzini “his favorite model.” In no part of this film does he mention that she is “his favorite person.” He doesn’t even seem to reflect on her role as a parent. Barzini doesn’t want to live confined in her son’s camera, rallying hard against his attempts to control her life for the sake of continuity and ease of presentation. The anger she displays when she wakes up to realize Barrese has been filming her while she sleeps is so sudden and brutal that we can’t help but dislike her son for making the film in the first place. She mentions that she allows him to film even though the experience has always been a “wound” to her. Barzini feels it would hurt Barrese to refuse his camera eye.
While Barrese appears to have intended to make a film about his mother in an attempt to not let her disappear from his memory after her inevitable death, he has inadvertently made a film about the control of fashion, art, and even the male gaze. His camera has all the force of a weapon to a woman who has been bludgeoned by similar devices her whole life. Barrese is controlling and manipulating her for his own narrative purposes. While that might make for an eye-opening film about how the restraints of fame and motherhood can cause a woman to never truly be seen, if done with no clear intention and sympathy, the whole work feels like torturing someone who just simply wants to get away from the whole thing. The runway. The camera. Her son. Her “life.”
The fact that Barrese’s intentions for The Disappearance of My Mother aren’t totally clear makes it a challenging watch. The consistent moments of his mother rejecting the camera, and even the project itself, could be seen as an apology for the constant intrusion and maybe even the countless intrusions she has experienced her whole career. Then again, the film might be little more than a son not wanting to let go of the image developed through countless cameras, including his own. This changes the narrative in a dark and rather disturbing fashion. With either interpretation, The Disappearance of My Mother is a difficult and unforgettable documentary.