Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother is a documentary portrait of Benedetta Barzini, the first Italian supermodel to appear on the cover of American Vogue, and the belladonna of an entire fashion industry. But even more than that, it is a film about the unique, blood-bond between filmmaker and subject — a son and his mother. For Barrese, the camera seems to be the only possible intermediary that can allow him to reconcile with his distant, frequently ferocious mother. But it’s to the camera, too, that Barzini feels an intense hostility and resentment. As she says during the film, there is an enormous gap between the image and the reality, between the photographs and the subjects whom the camera often betrays and manipulates. But despite such protestations, Barrese nonetheless attempts to capture, preserve, and cherish the memory of his iconic, ever-beautiful, intelligent, gray-haired mother. Like a curious, naughty child, Barrese insists on filming Benedetta even against her will.
The intimacy from behind the camera and the incompatible hostility expressed in front of it are the opposing forces that invigorate The Disappearance of My Mother. Although Barrese always follows his constantly-moving mother with a handheld camera, we almost never see them together in front of it. Thus, an indirect mirror shot between the mother and son, and Barrese’s efforts to pose young models meant to impersonate Benedetta, are revelatory moments during the film. After all, it is also a film about intergenerational relationships: how a mother might continue to live on through her children, or the ways that a veteran supermodel can inspire younger ones. With immense delicacy, the film avoids becoming a one-dimensional, clichéd outlook on fading beauty, and instead becomes a paean to no less than the splendor of life. Towards the end, it is Benedetta that ultimately caps the lens of Barrese’s camera. The image goes black and she disappears from the picture, though her voice still resonates. “Let’s go!” she tells her son, before they set out on a day with no intrusions of camera or image. Barrese, though, stealthily smuggles us a peek of their reconciliation after the closing credits, observing Benedetta seated behind her desk while he joyfully sings and plays a guitar.
Published as part of December 2019’s Before We Vanish.