A woman walks alone in the woods, lowers her pants, and squats. A spindly woman with silver curls crosses a rocky shore. She paddles a blue rowboat and laughs at the sea, her back to the horizon.
In Beniamino Barrese’s debut documentary, The Disappearance of My Mother, vanishing becomes an act of brazen volition, lyrically rendered from scene to scene. The film is a tribute to his mother, Benedetta Barzini — the first Italian model on the cover of American Vogue (in 1965), and a beloved, if notably brief, fixture of the Warhol Factory/Ford Models glitterati of mid-20th-century New York. Barrese trails the now-septuagenarian across her daily life in Milan, the place she has called home since renouncing the spotlight for Marxist feminism in the early 1970s.
As her son narrates early on, Benedetta has expressed a desire to “go away,” to disappear — in her own words, to “enter a world that’s the opposite of the world I’ve lived in up to now.” Poignantly examining what it means to attract—and repel — the spectator’s gaze, to hold sway and then daringly retreat, Disappearance embraces the contradictions innate to both his mother and the fashion industry at large, honoring the staunch conviction and introversion of a woman who shunned Warhol celebrity for political solidarity, and in her later years, Spartan solitude.
“The lens is the enemy,” she says to her son as she attempts to dodge his camera inside her humble flat. Fidgety and fire-tongued, she first rebukes the camera and then relents, though her piercing eyes often point somewhere far beyond the frame. The morning she is to receive a gold medal of honor from the Milan City Council for “destroying the stereotype of the brainless cover girl,” she refuses to change into “elegant clothes” and scoffs at the ordeal at her cluttered desk. “It’s undeserved — it has nothing to do with the values of today. Exhibitionism, being productive, money-making … I have nothing to do with it!” she tells her prying progeny, blowing her nose as she turns from his camera. “The fact that I was a supermodel is prestigious for this stupid city.”
And yet Barzini commands attention. During a candid scene featuring a visit from her close chum Lauren Hutton, Benedetta — or “Benny,” as Hutton tenderly calls her — is utterly ebullient, offering a cigarette as her friend mocks the scandalous price of Evian face mist. Later in the film, Barzini saunters down the catwalk during London Fashion week, one of British designer Simone Rocha’s line up of “vintage” models. In her poise and nimble movements, she retains an awareness of the gaze — even as she rejects it.
“Our daily life is full with contradictions,” Barrese confided early in an interview. An introspective 30-something duly humbled by his doc’s recent Citizen Eye award for best debut feature, he continued, “Often we like stories that give solutions to some of the contradictions that we go through, but in my case it was more about the questions: can you really photograph somebody? Can you really tell the story of somebody? In the end, this challenge was at the core of the film — my attempt to really capture my mother in a more authentic way, to give an everlasting impression of her. But I also gained more and more the awareness that this is not really possible.”
With minimal access to archival footage, Barrese got creative at capturing his mother’s past, staging contemporary New York models in a faux black-and-white casting shoot, asking each to pencil a beauty mark onto her right cheek — the same prominent mole his mother was forced to conceal in her 1960s modeling days. “Open your eyes. Look left, then right,” Barrese gently implores a stunning Asian woman with blunt-cut bangs. Working with women of various races, shapes, and countenances, Barrese conjures the distinctly dazzling yet degrading position of she behind the lens, beckoned to be this or that, to become what the photographer (usually male) more or less overtly beseeches. “It was a subtle way to show this power struggle,” he shared, seeing it as a means to “know also how my mom was thinking in the ’60s, in a way.”
In the actual shots and moving images of Barzini in her 20s, she is a modernist dream, all angles, dark eyes, and darting lashes — a lither, lankier Natalie Portman, as designed by Corbusier. “They treat me like a vestal of a ceremony,” reads a model in voiceover, from Barzini’s New York journal entries. “I get thrown into galas and parties. I look indifferent to the troubles of the world. People just vanish inside the concept of beauty. One day, the phone will stop ringing. That’s the day when you realize how powerless you are.”
Barzini’s current professorial role echoes her early consciousness, as she appears at a Milanese university teaching a feminist course on art history and visual culture to a class of mostly young women. Exhibiting a portrait of the Madonna by Antonella de Messina, she points out that it is “the only Virgin Mary who is painted reading a book, who isn’t holding a baby … who seems to be studying.” To her flock of stylish, solemn students, Barzini goes on to lecture about the pressure on women to be mothers, first and foremost. “The image of the mother and child,” she says, holding up a photo of an African woman and her baby, “is the highest symbol of tenderness and love.”
Barrese related his mother’s fraught relationship with the image to his own as a professional photographer, and now filmmaker.
I grew up in this overloaded image world, and then the images became even more an invasion in social media … [T]his world has very arrogantly invaded our daily life … I wanted to picture this conflict in the movie. I made myself into this naïve character that wants to keep his mom through images. I made my mom into this resistant woman who gives this different perspective, very unconventional for this world we live in.
However much his mother (reluctantly) cedes control to her son’s lens, she insists on the failure of images to capture anything like the truth. “Her point of view is the one I’m most interested in,” Barrese related. “And in the end, I think the movie is proving her point about images more than mine. We are looking to have this memory of ourselves, but she is going in the different direction.” And what a lonely, free direction for Barzini to row: a small, stubborn woman in the middle of the sea, beaming at the vast and generous unknown.