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Being a parent means having a child who knows exactly what buttons to push. So it makes painfully poetic sense that Italian fashion model and feminist intellectual Benedetta Barzini — no stranger to the frequently cruel, cold gaze of a camera and the people wielding it — would have a son, filmmaker Beniamino Barrese, whose compulsion is to incessantly photograph his mother. That’s the universe having a laugh, though the humor in The Disappearance of My Mother, Barrese’s affectionate, often uncomfortably intimate feature-length debut, tends to be of a more apprehensive sort.
At the age of 20, Barzini was discovered on the streets of Rome by an editor of Italian Vogue. Photos were taken and sent to New York, attention Diana Vreeland, and a career was made. A whirlwind of fashion spreads, parties, and names like Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol followed. But as age 25 approached, professional flameout seemed likely, so Barzini returned to Italy where she became a radical Marxist, outspoken feminist, and university lecturer, as well as a mother to four children.
Beniamino was born to Benedetta in 1986 and he began photographing and filming her from a young age. One of the most affecting sequences here is very lo-res home video footage, circa the late-’90s, of Barzini dancing effusively for her son’s camera. Barrese is a cherubic youth at this point (he strikes some very funny faux-macho poses in the bathroom mirror). However, the reason these blissful images pack such a punch is because they come mid-movie, after we’ve gotten acclimated to the turbulent push-and-pull between the adult Barrese, always with recording device in hand, and the much older woman who is now, in addition to his parent, his reluctant protagonist.
“Making this film became a way to confront my visceral fear of losing forever what is bound to disappear,” writes Barrese in his director’s statement. Barzini wants to make that disappearance literal by selling her city apartment and moving to a remote island village, so exhausted is she by a lifetime of calling attention to the ingrained sexism and exploitation of an industry that nonetheless continues to hold allure and which still comes calling. Watching the almost 75-year-old Barzini strut along a catwalk, her disdain indivisible from her deference, you admire her evident attempt to use an abusive system against itself. Beneath her flashy wardrobe and studied grin is a fierce, don’t-fuck-with-me intelligence that at the least manages to shake some oppressive foundations. That’s often the best anyone can hope for.
Another scene in which American fashion model Lauren Hutton comes to visit Barzini at her home has the feel of two war veterans reminiscing about their time on the battlefield. And there’s an added layer of unease due to Barrese’s presence. He wants nothing more than to film this lovely reunion of two colleagues who haven’t seen each other in years. They, on the other hand, want him to get the hell out and leave them alone. So he retreats and photographs them from an enticingly voyeuristic remove. In that moment, he’s both a terrific director and a terrible son.
Tensions of this sort — between sentimental and sordid impulses — course through The Disappearance of My Mother. Barrese wants to enshrine the woman who raised him at the same time as he wants to embalm her, and she’s willing to indulge him only to a point. In one sequence, Barzini will stand in her courtyard dressed to the nines, striking old-school modeling poses with a gleefully girlish grin. In another, she’ll throw a righteous temper tantrum because Barrese dared to film her while she slept, a total invasion of her privacy.
His obsession and her resistance intertwine, sometimes gently, sometimes explosively. This is a tumultuous muse story in which the artist and his inspiration just happen to be blood relations. It becomes evident in the film’s concluding passages, as Barzini finally takes steps to vanish from public life, that Barrese views this project as both a collaboration and a dialogue. Whether you think Benedetta is on equal footing with Beniamino will depend on how your sympathies shift over the course of this extremely slippery film. At the least, the very loaded and very moving last image suggests only one possible resolution — call it disappearance, call it darkness, call it death.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Doc)
Production company: Nanof
Director: Beniamino Barrese
Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese
Producer: Filippo Macelloni
Executive producer: Hayley Pappas
Editor: Valentina Cicogna
Composer: Aaron Cupples
Cinematographer: Beniamino Barrese
Featuring: Benedetta Barzini
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