A still from The Disappearance of My Mother by Beniamino Barrese, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

2019 Sundance Film Festival:  At the apogee of her beauty, Italian model Benedetta Barzini arguably had no equal. She appeared repeatedly on the cover of ‘Vogue’ and posed for Warhol. She had a unique, chiseled attractiveness to match her exquisite yet assertive frame. Her magnificence rivaled that of contemporaries like Elizabeth Taylor, and she had the dynamite, radical feminist personality to boot. But in the touching, emotional, and complicated documentary “The Disappearance of My Mother,” directed by Benedetta’s son, Beniamino Barrese, the unforgiving master of beauty, Father Time, comes to extract his costly toll.

Barrese has had a penchant for film-making from a young age. It is obvious not only because he tells you as much. “The Disappearance of My Mother” is dotted with footage of Benedetta that spans Barrese’s own lifetime. The documentary is thus infused, if nothing else, with a natural aesthetic progression that is splendorous to watch. From the innocent, preying, and uneven eyes of the young teenage boy, to the steadier, more mature, but also sadder visage of the young man. The emotional sincerity projected through the lens is so profound, in that archetypal Italian film-making way, that you are instantly captivated by it.

Beyond Barrese’s natural talent as a filmmaker able to convey his own perspective effectively, the film boasts an enthralling central figure. Thanks to Barrese’s lifelong archival efforts, he is able to weave a complete picture of his mother into his film. It arcs from her glamorous past to her waning present, as a fashion teacher in Milan. Fed-up with the vicissitudes of life, with what she perceives as the banality of it, Bendetta simply wants to disappear. It is not that she wants to die, exactly, she is far too in love with herself for that. She simply wants to go to a place far, where no one can find her, or bother her. Haven’t we all felt that way at times?

“The Disappearance of My Mother” thus becomes an at times gentle, at times coarser tug of war between mother and son. Benedetta, under the watchful gaze of spotlight most of her life, no longer wants to be captured. “You cannot know a person by photographing them,” she complains. But her maternal bond makes her feel obligated to permit her soon to symbolically capture the moment of her vanishing. Yet the movie is not a trite, oedipal fantasy, an adulatory piece towards a figure that only the filmmaker reveres. Benedetta is a fascinating woman.

In her youth, Benedetta became a radical leftist and a member of the Italian Communist Party. There are no harsh truths she is not willing to lace out—not with invective (though perhaps a little disdain). It is simply her brutal honesty. But, most importantly, Benedetta is ceaselessly and mercilessly introspective. She understands that the righteous standards she preaches are in tension with the value system that brought fame and recognition. For all her scorn towards superficiality and glitter, she knows she was a part of the system. And worse, she herself is still prey to it, sickened by her pruning features.

Juxtaposed with Benedetta’s cantankerousness, with her acerbic and acidic demeanor is Barrese’s exploratory persistence. He wants to see and wants us to see, Benedetta exactly as she is. And it is not a wholly selfless exercise. Thus, Barrese betrays the solipsistic nature of the endeavor the multitude of times he cannot resist putting himself in front of the camera. Also, side by side with his eponymous mother, or contrasted against her in the mirror. Thus, the heuristic of self is not self-determining. So one must construct it from the ground up, and constantly rediscover it. This is what Benedetta has continued to do throughout her life, and what her son must now learn for himself.

As for the advertised evaporation, the promised dissipation of body…Yes, that too comes, with the signature, powerful emotional sincerity that imbues this wonderful documentary. Both characters are too clever, too avant-garde, to resort to hackneyed movie endings. The sweeping majestic gesture is infantile, and the tear-jerking fadeout puerile. Because the only possible elucidation comes from doing what Benedetta has done her entire life in the face of its inanity: confront it. For the film, this means staging various choreographed exists, a melee of goodbyes that capture both the essence of what Bendetta is trying to do but also the futility of that very act of disappearance.

So, seldom have you seen a documentary with as much soul, as alive, as “The Disappearance of My Mother.” In telling the otherwise remarkable story of a remarkable woman, it teaches lessons past the mundane and into the ethereal. The search for the self is a constant struggle against forces of varying magnitudes and different manifestations. Time, society, aging, the self as well. Only a pure-hearted examination can yield a satisfactory answer to the probing mind: that life is simply unsatisfactory, as are others, and as one is too.

“The Disappearance of My Mother” screened in the World Documentary Competition section of the Sundance Film Festival and awaits distribution

Grade: (★★★)

What do you think? Who should pick up “The Disappearance of My Mother” for distribution?

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