Beniamino Barrese’s new doc is an intriguing dichotomy that lacks enough self-awareness and comprehension of its themes.
“Move your head slightly left and right,” a man’s voice tells a woman off-camera. “[L]ook straight into the camera,” it says to another. “Can you cry?” it asks someone else. And then it answers its own question: “No.” The woman laughs, the scene cuts, and the voice has some others try on makeup.
This is the voice of Beniamino Barrese, who’s spent almost his whole life filming his mother, Benedetta Barzini. Why? He doesn’t really know, but now he wants to make a documentary about her. She’s refused ad nauseam. She’s already spent enough time being watched when she was a supermodel, but as he presses even more, she agrees out of obligation. He shoots her talking with a friend; he tries to get a clip of her sleeping. He’s desperate to see something. According to her, however, women are more intrigued by focusing on what isn’t in front of them.
And where’s the lie? There definitely isn’t one—at least not in this scenario—and The Disappearance of My Mother supports that. It’s Barrese’s wavering self-awareness that prevents his picture from saying as much as it could have. It links the audience to Benedetta’s emotions and the gaze of his camera, but while the end result is striking at points, it can’t control the cognitive dissonance inherent to such a project. At its worst, it’s an unintentional case study in how a lack of creator/subject ethics undoes a solid idea.
But about that idea—credit to him for having a good one. Barrese is taking a swing (to an extent) and he’s open to the contradictions that come with presenting this split sense of perspective. It’s a real-life family drama that quickly shifts into self-discovery. The wrinkle, of course, is that this self-discovery is told from a third-person perspective. Benedetta’s history shows itself through archive material and interviews, and moments of her current work as a feminist studies professor give the film a much-needed reorientation in terms of its ethos.
In fact, it’s whenever Barrese focuses more on women’s words than his own work that any real self-awareness comes about. Elsewhere, scene after scene of him bugging his mother for the sake of his movie ensues, and while they’re earnest in their inclusions, they can’t help but feel hypocritical. Here’s a movie that openly critiques men’s need to turn women in muses only to constantly anchor Benedetta down by such a title. She is, at the end of the day, still the man’s mother, and she’s on camera no matter how much she begs him to stop.
It’s bizarre, really. One through-line of the picture isn’t just the conflation of the male gaze and pop culture, but also of the way men and women view the world differently. It frames its tale in a negative space of social progress with more than a hint of disorganization and Valentina Cicogna, all the while, leans into these creases with her editing. But it’s always in some way, shape, or form about Barrese himself. The Disappearance of My Mother is about his growth, about his learning, about his tribute to his mother.
It links the audience to Benedetta’s emotions and the gaze of [Barrese’s] camera, but while the end result is striking at points, it can’t control the cognitive dissonance inherent to such a project.
The ethics are questionable, not least of which stems from the fact that half of the movie wouldn’t exist if Barrese actually cared about his mother’s feelings (read: if he stopped recording when she wanted him to and didn’t harass her friends). Instead, he paints himself as the antagonist of a movie that can’t decide on self-pity or self-effacement. The grey area fails to coalesce, leading to the type of movie that, oddly enough, could have used another degree of separation.
Maybe if it were more selfless it would have paid off more. As it is, it’s a decently constructed documentary that has enough of a visual style. It’s just too alluring to think about something Benedetta says in the beginning: “Maybe it would be better if female bodies disappeared from men’s imagination.”
She’s right. And with her being right, The Disappearance of My Mother ceases to exist.
The Disappearance of My Mother is now in limited release and continues to shove its lens in audiences’ faces in the coming weeks.