REVIEW: “The Disappearance of My Mother” (2019) Mistakes Intrusion for Intimacy

Rating: 3 out of 3.

“The story of Barzini disappears into the story of her son’s love for her, which often borderlines on obsession.”

Benedetta Barzini, one of the top Italian supermodels of the 1960s, gave up her flourishing fashion career in the early 1970s in favor of studying Marxism and organizing with the Italian Communist Party. Although she was the first Italian model to be on the cover of Vogueand was close friends with powerful larger than life figures such as Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol, she has been largely left out of the narrative surrounding that particular time period in fashion history, perhaps because history is unkind to outspoken women who are both hot and smart, as they run against the patriarchal capitalist system. At any age, she is at once a gorgeous human being, a brilliant feminist mind and a fantastic speaker; she currently teaches in Milan andstill models occasionally, breaking ageist industry stereotypes. Today, Barzini’s only wish is to go to a place where no one can photograph or know her, to disappear. As someone who spent most of her young life being photographed and looked at in a world that was just getting comfortable with the notion of supermodel as celebrity, this desire makes sense. But her cinematographer son Beniamino Barrese is not ready to let go, nor will he ever be. She is the begrudging subject of his debut documentary: “The Disappearance of My Mother.”

As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that there are two opposing strong forces at work here: Barzini does not want to be filmed while her son desperately wants to film her, not just sometimes, but constantly, even while she sleeps. Many times, Barzini explicitly asks him to turn off the camera or to not film a particular conversation, but he does not comply with her requests, overstepping a boundary and breaking their trust as mother and son. It is very uncomfortable to watch as he films her sleeping when she has directly asked him not to. In Barrese’s quest to know and capture a portrait of his mother he is willfully ignoring her agency and choosing not to see her, instead seeing only what he wants to see.

There are parts of the film that are done well, of course; there is a better documentary made up of the pieces of the film that Barzini consented to. Watching her teach young female fashion students about the pitfalls of conventional beauty standards is a marvel that any audience could engage with for hours. Barzini’s modern day modelling reminds us that it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the dedication of older women in the fashion industry instead of erasing them from history. Barrese’s stunning cinematography proves that he is a talented visual artist who values the complexities of his mother. There are many striking images that gorgeously express the many facets of Barzini’s life: she swims alone in the vast ocean, she hangs onto a cigarette despite her persistent cough, she twirls in the courtyard, imitating poses she performed for photographers forty years prior. At once, Barzini is steadfast, fierce, intelligent and gorgeous at every stage of her life.

The title “The Disappearance of My Mother” eludes to many things, such as history’s erasure of Barzini and older models, or Barzini’s own wish to disappear from civilized society aswe know it. Ultimately, the story of Barzini disappears into the story of her son’s love for her, which often borderlines on obsession.

Dir/Writer: Beniamino Barrese

Prod: Giovanni Storti, Hayley Pappas, Bryn Mooser, Filippo Macelloni, Giulio Luciani, Andrea M Lehner, Matt Ippolito, Lorenzo Garzella, Paolo Borraccetti, Beniamino Barrese, Callie Barlow

Release Date: December 6th, 2019

Available: Limited run in NYC