An Italian supermodel who graced the covers of fashion magazines and the margins of Warhol’s Factory scene before rejecting the worlds of artifice and image, Benedetta Barzini has been photographed quite enough in her lifetime for her liking. Now in her 70s, she dreams of vanishing from society to live free of cellphones, bank accounts, the internet and other people. But before she departs in search of that final freedom, she begrudgingly allows one final camera to pierce the veil of her fiercely protected privacy: that of her filmmaker son Beniamino Barrese.
Filmed in intimate detail with Barrese operating the camera, “The Disappearance of My Mother” partially chronicles Barzini’s evolution from high fashion muse to radical feminist, tracing a line from her post-modeling work fighting patriarchal constructs of womanhood (“Men invent women and this leads to Jessica Rabbit,” she decrees in archival footage) to the lectures she now gives young fashion students on the paradox of fashion as both expression and constraint. It keenly observes as Barzini makes her way quietly through her days in Milan, vaping and vehemently anti-glam, her eyes betraying a sense of alienation from the lives bustling around her.
A woman photographed by others for much of her life who now rejects the form, Barzini makes a fascinatingly difficult subject, submitting to the lens only to spare her son the hurt of refusing him. After decades of fame, of being recognized on the street and on the page, she wishes not to be looked at — which is exactly what Barrese keeps doing, to Barzini’s frequent and understandable irritation. Having filmed his mother his whole life, he still seeks to connect with her through his camera. But it’s precisely the camera that she’s rejected wholesale in her latter decades, setting up the film’s fascinating central conflict, a battle of wills between subject and filmmaker who hold fundamentally opposed values and desires.
His camera studies her long, silvery hair, her thin frame, her darting eyes, with visceral yearning as a swirling score lends emotion to his gaze. She resists just as forcefully, voicing her frequent discomfort and protestation. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she complains. Elsewhere, Barrese hopes to intrude when American model Lauren Hutton pays a visit to Barzini because it will make for a good scene, but both women won’t have it. Hutton is the one to kick him out of the room: “We’re here for ourselves,” she admonishes. He retreats, only to spy on them from afar like a naughty child.
Perhaps that’s why Barrese spares his mother the camera in sessions casting a variety of young models and actresses to “play” her, re-creating poses and photo shoots from her modeling prime. They obey his direction as she will not, but they are not her. Which might be why the exercise falls flat, like a later segment in which he directs Barzini in staged scenarios playing out her act of disappearance first into the ocean, and then into a forest, lugging only a backpack of belongings with her.
Barrese’s attempts to grasp control and understanding of his mother’s extreme and imminent departure, however, eventually lead to a final breakthrough: a compromise. After weaving her musings on beauty, aging, death, memory and identity throughout the film, Barrese seems to come to terms with her decision to disappear, to rewrite her own ending, without rules, in her own final chapter, and the film reveals its truest self as a cinematic act of negotiation, acceptance and farewell between mother and son.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 13, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica