For a brief time in the 1960s, Benedetta Barzini was one of the world’s greatest supermodels. Her doe-eyed look and elegant bone structure made her a fixture of magazine covers and runways. But after only about five years of modeling, Barzini began to forsake her career, becoming interested in feminism and radical politics. Though she had continued to model occasionally throughout the decades, she’s more interested in teaching university courses about the way the fashion industry oppresses women. She leaves her hair frizzy and unkempt, with the gray showing, and her skin has become leathery from decades of smoking (she’s since switched to a vape pen). The Disappearance of My Mother (La scomparsa di mia madre) begins after decades of her living in or near the spotlight, as Barzini decides she wants to disappear from public life. She doesn’t want to be photographed or filmed anymore, and wants to withdraw from her lectures and public events.
All of this is in conflict with her son, the filmmaker Beniamino Barrese, who derives more pleasure from filming his mother than almost anything else. Throughout The Disappearance of My Mother he includes footage of Barzini he shot as a child, when she was considerably warmer. He approaches his task almost in a frenzy, as everything possible must be recorded before his mother vanishes. Along the way, we learn about her modeling career and why she rejected it, but the film’s most tantalizing secret is why she has chosen to abandon her life. Barrese falters a bit when considering her disappearance; it seems likely to have been driven by mental illness, a kind of depression, but he seems so determined to romanticize his mother’s every action that he fails to consider the very real possibility that something is amiss.
Yet, he also offers a kind of humanity to his mother that she has so often been denied. We may not understand why she wants to disappear, but we get a better understanding of why she changed her whole life midstream. To her, modeling is like wearing a mask, and freeing her outspoken self was the only way to be seen. So why disappear now?
In addition to the compelling personal conversations Barrese witnesses, he also shoots numerous contemporary models, giving them a beauty spot just like his mother’s, and having them dress up like her most famous photosets. He’s trying to recreate the part of his mother’s life he was never around to experience. The other invented part of the film occurs toward the end, as Barrese films possible departures for his mother. In one, she sails off into the distance, a possible romantic departure, while in another ending, she hikes off into the woods, never to be seen again. There are hints throughout The Disappearance of My Mother that Barzini is sick with some major illness; perhaps she hopes to hide so that no one will see her weakness in her final days. Though Barrese’s documentary is primarily for his own benefit, it’s also a chance to give his mother the farewell she deserves. Sometimes the right goodbye can ease the sorrow of parting, if only a little.