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The Disappearance of My Mother

by Agnese Oliveri | 4 January 2021

Directed by Beniamino Barrese, Documentary, 1h 34m. Benedetta wishes to leave Milan for a new haven, where she shall bring no credit card, nor phone, nor will she communicate with her son. She is Benedetta Barzini: imponent name and faces in fashion, the first Italian to appear on the cover of Vogue, daughter of the Italian haute bourgeoisie, companion to artists like Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol, as well as feminist icon as she resists the conventional features of her role as a model. Benedetta was, and is, not only stunning but also fierce, piercing. Her son, Beniamino Barrese, has been filming and photographing her since he was a boy, even before he knew she was a model (which she tried to keep from him for a long time), admitting that ‘ She just was too much to be contained in a single image—too beautiful, too smart, too funny, too intelligent, too aggressive, too incredible. For as hard as I tried, I just could not effectively capture her soul in a shot. She was a mystery to me.’

Photo: Movie Still from The Disappearance of My Mother

This becomes evident in the documentary. If Benedetta has finally decided to disappear, Beniamino is desperately trying to reveal her soul. She refuses to be seen, she claims that her son is doing her violence, he is naïve as he made his life about images being a videographer, he’s too hung up on memory, so she screams at him in many moments before or after repeating ‘take away that damn camera’. Beniamino is patient (at least for what we can see), and gently tries to answer her accusatory questions, to insist on taking another little reel, to tell her that the last thing he wants is to do her violence. But if in some moments the tension between the two is almost uncomfortable (you don’t want Benedetta to be filmed when she so strongly refuses to be seen, but also don’t want Beniamino to be screamed at so rashly), there are moments of tenderness, where Benedetta plays with her son, lets him glimpse at her, she pirouettes for him posing like she posed in those 80s fashion covers Beniamino ‘likes so much’. For these reasons, ‘The Disappearance of My Mother’ is a movie hard to define. The spontaneous nature of this docu-film breaks the clinical distance of documentaries, where subjects and videomaker rarely interact. Even more spontaneous documentaries (à la Louis Theroux where the videomaker enters the narrative portrayed) do not approach the same intimacy of Beniamino and Benedetta. Not only is this relationship completely exposed, but also the behind the scenes is constantly uncovered . Indeed, the movie begins with the casting of young women, as they apply makeup to simulate Benedetta’s recognisable beauty spot, we understand we are probably in Beniamino’s studio as he searches for the women to portray his mother. Towards the end of the movie, Benedetta and Beniamino frankly discuss how to film certain scenes of the movie, after each fragment of the conversation, the idealised scene is played out (apart from the one where Benedetta expresses the wish to grab the camera and destroy it), only to return to the conversation and so on and so forth. Beniamino’s playful choices, alternating from his mother yelling ‘cretino’ (a scene that surely comes to mind to many Italians when recalling their mother), to a range of actresses reading passages in her diary describing a lonely childhood, and her unexpected discovery as a model, to dreamlike scenes. By constantly changing his role, from rebel son, to an adoring one, from cold cameramen, to serious director, he successfully portrays not only an image of his mother, but also an impression of the gazes that have haunted her and keep haunting her in her life. The gazes that made her decide to disappear, as their impudence kept trying to pierce into her, splitting her persona in kaleidoscopic images, one more oppressing than the others. We see Benedetta holding up a picture from a fashion magazine in a punched pocket (despite the large projector screen behind her, a detail that adds a certain irony to the scene), she then proceeds to show a classic painting of a mother and child, and then Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Mary. She asks: “What is different? What is happening in these images?” She colludes fashion and canonical art to make her students reflect on women’s portrayal in history. The answer that she seeks is one that most art history students have encountered a dozen time: the women’s portrayal is dictated by the male gaze.

Photo: Movie Still from The Disappearance of My Mother

The unattainable image of motherhood represented by the Virgin Mary is hammered into our brains time and time again, and repurposed in fashion magazines, the product to buy for you and your baby to look just as perfect, to try and strive every day for that perfection. Benedetta turns our attention to Antonello’s Mary, she is studying, serenely, her character is not that of the women-ergo mother, but of the women who is studious and intellectual, just as Antonello’s San Girolamo. This instance displays to us that the documentary is on ‘disappearance’ as much as it is on gaze. For this reason, Beniamino’s continuous changes in direction convey the strength of the male gaze on one hand, that has constantly tried to objectify Benedetta, as well as the gaze of the bourgeois society, and that of the oedipal son. In an old tv interview, an Italian man screams at Benedetta ‘who would want women like you in power in Italy? That would be the ruin of men and of this country’. What becomes clear is that Benedetta was disappearing in the countless depictions that were trying to encapsulate her, because she was playing a part to fit into what was desired of her, and when she wasn’t, she wasn’t accepted. Her reason for leaving everything is actually to recover what is left of herself. Here, appearance and disappearance oscillate back and forth on the spectrum of the Heraclitean dual opposites. They conflate in Benedetta, as she wishes to disappear only to exist, and disappears in countless false fragments when she appears on fashion covers. Beniamino is searching for his mother in this documentary, as he affirms he always felt that his videos, or any other image for that matter, always felt reductive in comparison to his mother’s grandeur. To say that this is not true would be almost to insult Benedetta. However, what the movie leaves us with, is a glimpse into this woman’s resistance to everyone else, and righteous fight for herself, after a life spent under the gaze of others. Beniamino also states in another interview that he wanted to make the personal universal, something that probably most artists attempt, my take is that he does exactly so. Even though my mother is not an extravagant ex top-model who now dresses poorly and babbles about disappearing, the rawness portrayed has gifted me with one of most touching reflections on my relationship with her, more than the ‘suburban-mother-with-rebellious-teenager-daughter-trope’ we have so often seen in Hollywood has ever given me.

Photo: Movie Still from The Disappearance of My Mother


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