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.