“I hate memory,” says Benedetta Barzini near the end of “The Disappearance of My Mother.” In spite of this aversion to nostalgia, the film’s director, Beniamino Barrese, who happens to be Barzini’s son, smuggles in some material from her past. The first Italian model to appear on the cover of American Vogue, Barzini, now 76, was photographed by the likes of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. In New York in the 1960s, she hobnobbed with Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. Back in Italy in subsequent decades, working as a journalist and an educator, she became a leading feminist voice, a rigorous critic of the ways the media and fashion industries manipulate and commodify women’s bodies and experiences.
It’s not only Barzini’s impatience with the past that complicates her son’s desire to paint a cinematic portrait. She declares herself hostile to photography, to cinema, to images of every kind, arguing that they distort and “freeze” experience. At times her contempt seems to extend to Barrese himself. She frequently snaps at him (“petty bourgeois” is one of her tamer epithets), occasionally throws him out of her Milan apartment and even half-jokingly threatens to smash his camera.
From time to time, in the course of this mesmerizing, tender, painful documentary (Barrese’s first feature), you may find yourself sympathizing with the filmmaker, who occasionally allows himself to slip into view. He clearly adores his mother and respects her as a subject, even when his devotion ensnares them both in a paradox. Barzini’s greatest wish, as the title suggests, is to vanish, to complete the final chapter of a highly visible life in a state of obscurity. Barrese at once supports this aspiration and sets out to thwart it, showing us someone who insists that she doesn’t want anyone to see her.
The passionate clarity with which she asserts her views is persuasive, and her complicated charisma makes her an irresistible, unforgettable screen presence. Barrese shoots her at home and outdoors, in front of a classroom and in conference with students. She smokes, vapes, makes coffee and dances. At London Fashion Week, she appears on the catwalk, holding her own with much younger models. Her old friend Lauren Hutton stops by for a visit. (Barrese is banished for most of it.) In some scenes, Barzini seems heartbreakingly fragile, in others indomitable.
Growing to like her — and also, maybe, to be a little afraid of her — the viewer is trapped in a further contradiction. To embrace this movie fully means to accept the case for its nonexistence. At the very least, it’s impossible to watch “The Disappearance of My Mother” without a measure of ambivalence. Gratitude for the chance to make Barzini’s acquaintance, and for Barrese’s sensitivity in making the introduction, is accompanied by ethical queasiness.
That is very much the point. Barzini’s critique of the culture of glamour and consumption is not easily refuted, but it is nonetheless partly undermined by her own magnetism. Footage and photographs from her earlier life cast an inevitable spell, as does Barrese’s decision to “cast” young models as versions of his mother. The film opens with screen tests during which these women apply makeup to replicate the grain de beauté that is one of Barzini’s distinguishing rates. Later, they read passages from a memoir in which she recalls her unhappy, wealthy childhood and her subsequent career.
This is not “the biography of my mother.” Those unfamiliar with Barzini’s life might consult an interview conducted by one of her nieces and published earlier this decade in Document Magazine. It provides information about her family and her political views that is missing from Barrese’s film, which is more about his mother’s human presence than her history and accomplishments.
It is also, of course, about her impending absence — about a mortality that she both dreads and relishes. Her desire to go away isn’t, she says, a suicidal fantasy. It’s more like a longing to feel the contradictions of her existence resolved, to see the glare of publicity replaced by darkness, to hear the noise of the world silenced. Her son sincerely hopes she will find that peace, though maybe not quite yet.
The Disappearance of My Mother
Not rated. In English and Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes.