The Disappearance Of My Mother


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Disappearance Of My Mother
"Sometimes a film is interesting despite its director." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Halfway through this film, Benedetta Barzini speaks with melancholy and anger of the moment when the phone stops ringing, when one realises how powerless one is and that the only thing one can put on one's CV is 'ex top model'.

It happened to her when she was 25. Before that, she had enjoyed five years as the darling of the fashion industry, celebrated by Diana Vreeland, photographed by Andy Warhol, mingling with movie stars and millionaires and heads of state. She as, as she puts it, one of the high priestesses of the temple of capitalism. With the doors suddenly closed to her, she returned to her native Italy, became a Marxist and had four children, one of whom, Beniamino Barrese, became obsessed with photographing her and ultimately made this film.

To say that it's an intimate portrait would probably be putting it mildly. Intrusive might be a better word. Viewers may well feel that their comfort zones are encroached on as much as its subject's (in one scene, she and Lauren Hutton straight out order Barrese to leave the room, whereupon he continues to film them from a secret vantage point). Yet there's a sense that this unapologetic gaze, which stays mercilessly close whether she's sleeping or relieving herself on a walk in the woods, is preferable to what she faced before, at least in retrospect. It's honest. Barzini's rebellion against the commodification of beauty entails not only a rejection of popular beauty standards but an embrace of that beauty to be found in every aspect of the human form, in all its diversity, and at any stage in life.

She was 74 when this film was made and looked every bit of it, but in between the difficult, arguably exploitative vérité scenes we see her walk the catwalk with a confidence that is compelling. She has the kind of charisma that doesn't depend on smooth skin or even on pretty clothes; she commands the screen in her dressing gown, relaxing in an easy chair. From such positions she does battle with her wayward son, who seems to have adopted intransigence as a strategy for working around her authority. She is uninterested in this project, she tells him. She is tired of being looked at. She's a teacher these days, encouraging her students to think critically about the semantics of popular images. Holding up a picture of the Vrigin Mary, she explains that it's the only one in which that subject can be seen reading a book, without a child.

Sometimes a film is interesting despite its director - or because of them, but not in the way they might want. Here, the obsessive son is just as present in the frame as his famous mother. Though we rarely see him, he is the one we get to know. For all his prying, Barzini succeeds in holding onto something private within herself. She has built up a resistance to the male gaze. It gives her a different kind of beauty.

Can even death bring peace? "I'm not looking for someone who looks like my mother," Barrese declares as he auditions a series of young actresses who he hopes will be able to capture different aspects of her before his lens.These women, trained in controlling their expressions, nevertheless reveal hints of unease. One gets the impression that Barrese will always be looking for Barzini, always trying to capture something about her that is out of his reach. Were he to put the camera down for a moment and listen rather than looking, might he find it?

Reviewed on: 02 Dec 2019
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An ageing fashion model strives to escape the world of images and disappear for good, but her son's determination to make a final film about her sparks an unexpected collaboration and confrontation with the camera's gaze.

Director: Beniamino Barrese

Starring: Benedetta Barzini, Lauren Hutton, Beniamino Barrese

Year: 2019

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: Italy

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