Resentment and attachment to the image in, The Disappearance of my Mother

August 2, 2019

There’s something incredibly endearing about a mother consistently telling her adult son to f*ck off, despite being the subject of his documentary. The Disappearance of my Mother (Storia di B – La scomparsa di mia madre, Beniamino Barrese, 2019) is in equal parts poetic, intimate and conceptual. It explores former supermodel Benedetta Barzini’s resentment of the image, and her son Beniamino Barrese’s attempts to capture that on film.

After five years in high fashion (in the company of Warhol, Dali, Penn and Avedon) Barzini left New York to become a Marxist and radical feminist organiser in Italy. We see fragments of Barzini’s class at the University of Milan, and it’s unclear if she teaches gender studies, art history or socially conscious fashion photography (or a synthesis of the three). Far from dictation, Barzini challenges her students to think for themselves.

This method translates into her interactions with Barrese, albeit with more liberty to bare her teeth as she addresses her son. Capturing Barzini’s image is a constant source of contention throughout the film. Barzini’s chorus of protest serves to confront Barrese with the futility of his mission to capture and embalm his mother on film.

Barrese invites audiences to feel uncomfortable, as we invade Barzini’s personal space. She asserts boundaries, and the camera trespasses them. This can be jarring, and Variety writer Dennis Harvey has equated the film to elder abuse. In Barrese’s defense, this draws on dynamics that transcend documentarian and subject, or mother and son. It’s about the ontological power dynamic between beholder and beheld.

Skepticism of Barrese’s ethical integrity, and therefore our own as we continue to look, is an intentional authorial/editorial choice. Barzini’s don’t-f*ck-with-me demeanor makes it unlikely that a film, or final cut, would exist without her consent. Her insistence on disappearance is existential as much as it is literal, recalling Alexander Pope’s Ode to Solitude:

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

PS. Stick around for the post-credits scene.

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