×

Sundance Film Review: ‘The Disappearance of My Mother’

Beniamino Barrese aims the camera at his former-supermodel mother — and she ducks — in this discomfitingly invasive documentary portrait.

Director:
Beniamino Barrese
With:
Benedetta Barzini, Beniamino Barrese, Lauren Hutton. (Italian, English dialogue)

1 hour 40 minutes

In the age of Instagram, it may be hard for many to grasp that others might still treasure their privacy, to the point of actually loathing the camera. Beniamino Barrese’s first feature is an interesting exercise in cinema-as-weapon, even if it probably wasn’t originally intended as such. The director is a photographer whose mother, Benedetta Barzini, was an early supermodel, her face all over magazine covers in the 1960s. Today she abhors the invasiveness of being reduced to an image — yet her son keeps sticking that lens in her face.

The Disappearance of My Mother” is a successful piece of documentary filmmaking inasmuch as it’s entertaining and dextrously crafted. But its precise intent is unclear. Seldom has a movie’s subject so frequently told its creator to f— off. As far as we can tell, she’s right to do so; surely there’s a point at which familial love is more important than badgering a loved one “for art’s sake.” Yet that’s the line Barrese keeps crossing, without ever quite revealing what goal might justify a process that practically amounts to elder abuse.

Happy to escape a fatherless home and wealth-obsessed mother, Italian teen Barzini was “discovered” in 1963, quickly rising to international success. We see her posing in couture fashions of the era, hanging out with such A-list patrons as Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon. But she became disillusioned, the Women’s Liberation movement opening her eyes to feminist (and Marxist) principles in direct opposition to her professional world of consumerist glamour. She now teaches fashion students, training them not in sales or design but in parsing those industries’ objectification of women. She dresses down to accept a local award and hates being recognized as a celebrity. It’s her dream to disappear onto an island so remote that computers, telephones — and those dreaded cameras — cannot reach it.

How seriously are we to take this desire? It’s hard to know. On the one hand, Barzini appears to be downsizing her cluttered habitat for some kind of departure. On the other, some alleged leave-taking scenes appear to be staged. Indeed, she’s often being directed by her son, which only heightens her exasperation at participating in a project she deems false and unnecessary. Barrese films her when she’s cooking, sleeping, waking or, for the first time in decades, seeing ex-model friend Lauren Hutton — who also berates Barrese’s insensitivity.

All this would make sense if the director were wearing his mother down in pursuit of some buried family secret, emotional hangup, or some other difficult personal issue. But we learn little about Barzini that’s not conveyed by either the beauty of her iconic modeling images or the understandable crankiness of her old age. Did she have other children? Spouses? Yes, and yes. But you won’t learn those basics from this film. It’s also never explained why we see her participating in London Fashion Week and a seaside fashion shoot, exactly the sorts of things she claims to have gratefully left behind nearly half a century ago. Does she need the money?

Reflecting Barrese’s own prior work in commercials, fashion promos, music videos and the like, “Disappearance” is highly worked in packaging terms. It’s a complex if skin-deep collage of different aspect ratios, black-and-white and color, vérité and archival footage, dramatic re-creations (several model-actresses perform the role of his mother’s younger self), arresting soundtrack choices and other sophisticated aesthetic contrasts.

Forever protesting yet complying out of maternal duty, Barzini gives as good as she gets. She’s a strong character, so there’s little worry she’ll be scarred by the experience. Stimulating as it is on the surface, “Disappearance” may be truly useful only in the context of a Documentary Ethics 101 course. It’s a blunt illustration of an elemental principle: Filmmaker, do not abuse thy subjects.

Popular on Variety

Sundance Film Review: 'The Disappearance of My Mother'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary — competing), Feb. 2, 2019. Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Italy) A Ryot Film presentation of a Nanof production in association with Rai Cinema. (International sales: Autlook Films, Vienna.) Producers: Filippo Macelloni, Beniamino Barrese. Executive producers: Haley Pappas, Matt Ippolito, Bryn Mooser, Giovanna Storti, Lorenzo Garzella.

Crew: Director: Beniamino Barrese. Camera (color/B&W): Barrese. Editor: Valentina Cicogna. Music: Aaron Cupples.

With: Benedetta Barzini, Beniamino Barrese, Lauren Hutton. (Italian, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Finding Farideh

    Oscars: Iran Picks Doc 'Finding Farideh' As International Feature Film Contender

    “Finding Farideh,” a feature-length documentary about an Iranian girl adopted at infancy by a Dutch couple who 40 years later travels to Iran in search of her biological parents, is Iran’s candidate for the recently renamed International Feature Film Oscar. Co-directed by young Tehran-based duo Azadeh Mousavi and Kourosh Ataee, the doc bridges East and West. [...]

  • Dogs Don’t Wear Pants

    Buyers Catch Valkeapaa's ‘Dogs Don’t Wear Pants’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rolling off its Cannes Directors’ Fortnight world bow, J.-P. Valkeapää’s BDSM movie “Dogs Don’t Wear Pants” has been sold by The Yellow Affair to new U.K. distributor Anti-Worlds for the U.K. and Ireland, as well as to The Klockworx Co for Japan, Ama Films for Greece, HHG for Russia/CIS, Pilot Film for the Czech Republic [...]

  • 'Kix,' 'Frem' Win Docu Talent Awards

    'Kix,' 'Frem' Win Docu Talent Awards at Sarajevo Film Festival

    Hungary’s “Kix” and Czech Republic’s “Frem” won the Docu Talent Awards, chosen from a field of 10 documentary features from Central and Eastern Europe, at the Sarajevo Film Festival on Sunday. “Kix,” directed by David Mikulan and Balint Revesz, is the story of Sanyi, a troubled youth, as he grows from eight to 18, morphing [...]

  • The Garden

    Bragason Brings ‘Woman at War’s’ Geirharosdottir to ‘The Garden’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Acclaimed actress Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, best known for “Woman at War,” is set to star in writer/director Ragnar Bragason’s dark comedy “The Garden.” Currently in post-production and to be pitched at Haugesund’s New Nordic Films over Aug. 20-23, “The Garden” is Bragason’s sixth feature and his first one since the 2013 Toronto entry “Metalhead.” “I did [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras to Receive San Sebastian Career Achievement Donostia Award

    Costa-Gavras, the Greek-born France-based director of some of the most famed movies of political cinema, from 1969’s “Z” to 1981’s “Missing,” will receive a career achievement Donostia Award at this September’s 67th San Sebastian Film Festival. The filmmaker will collect his prize on Sept. 21 at a ceremony held at San Sebastian’s Victoria Eugenia, where [...]

  • Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), Leonard (Bill

    China Box Office: New Animations No Match For 'Nezha' Domination

    Chinese animation “Nezha” continued its run as China’s biggest hit of the summer, maintaining its top spot at the box office even 25 days into its run with a weekend gross of $41.2 million. The tally made it this weekend’s fourth highest grossing film worldwide. Meanwhile, two other new animated titles performed unremarkably. The flop of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content