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SUNDANCE 2019 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: The Disappearance of My Mother


- Beniamino Barrese films a documentary about his mother, the combative and iconic 75-year-old feminist model Benedetta Barzini, who reflects on the power of images

Review: The Disappearance of My Mother
Beniamino Barrese and Benedetta Barzini in The Disappearance of My Mother

"I do not want to be seen, I want to disappear." It would be difficult for anyone to shoot a documentary on this premise, as declared by the film’s subject herself. Especially when the subject is the combative and iconic 75-year-old feminist model Benedetta Barzini. In The Disappearance of My Mother [+see also:
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– in competition in the World Cinema Documentary section at Sundance Film Festival 2019 – Beniamino Barrese manages to craft a tender biography of his mother, eventually overcoming her reluctance to be filmed. "No one has ever photographed the real me, my face is not for sale," she once said in an interview many years ago, which is included in the rich audiovisual material that features in the documentary. In his first feature film, the thirty-year-old photographer and director plays on a naive attitude, acting as if he were a son obsessed by his mother's image. "I’ve spent my entire life filming and photographing her," he states at the beginning of the film. "She was my first model. When she told me she was leaving and not coming back, I realised I wasn’t ready to let her go just yet."

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Photographed by big names such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon in New York in the 1960s, where she attended Andy Warhol's Factory, Benedetta later returned to Italy to appear on the cover of the first issue of Vogue Italia in 1964. An anti-conformist rebel from a rich and highly-educated family, Benedetta was a militant of the radical left in Milan in the fervent 1970s, before accepting a teaching post at the University of Urbino and Milan Polytechnic. Today, she teaches her students about radical anti-capitalism at the NABA New Academy of Fine Arts in Milan: "The history of the textile and clothing industry is shameful." She shows them advertisements from fashion magazines, "terribly symbolic of the idea we want to have of women," pondering "why imperfection bothers me so much?" She preaches about non-beauty after having reckoned with her own for 50 years. 

“Yes, but why do you want to leave?” asks the son-cum-director, who continues to look for an actress to play his mother in an endless casting process. “I want to go to a place that is opposite to the one I've lived in until now, where everything seems to be owed to the image and not to memory. I am interested in the things you can’t see.” In short, Benedetta wants to live on a desert island, without a credit card, bank account, telephone or computer. He follows her everywhere with his camera, and she is sometimes uncooperative, and sometimes participatory. He is her son. We see them at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, where the mayor awards her a gold medal. Or on the catwalk together with the eighteen-year-old models at London Fashion Week. One day, they receive a visit from Lauren Hutton, the legendary actress and American model, who once starred in American Gigolo. Lauren is the same age as Benedetta, they were both born in 1943. But they have not seen each other for 50 years. Hutton reminisces about how she only starting modelling so she could pay to go traveling with her boyfriend, but continues to do so because "it's like a gold mine, much better than making movies!" 

Benedetta reiterates her decision to “leave behind the white men who have devastated the world.” Words that may seem somewhat incredible and ridiculous. When her son finally asks her if he can film her departure, she refuses. The only scene that she would like filmed at that point "is the breaking of [his] camera." A game between mother and son that serves to document the life of a living legend who is in a constant battle with her surroundings, as well as a to reflect on the power of images.

Developed at the Dok.Incubator Workshop in 2018, the film was produced by Nanof in collaboration with RAI Cinema and co-produced by RYOT Films (United States). Sales are being handled by Autlook Films.

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(Translated from Italian)

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