Sundance FIlm Festival 2019 Review

Director: Beniamino Barrese
Section: World Cinema Documentary Competition

A 32-year-old man obsessively films his mother. She hates being filmed. She once walked the ramp. The gaze of cameras now repels her. She dislikes images – they freeze moments and limit them, she says, unlike memories. ‘Disappearing’ is too romantic a term; she wants to leave everything and go far away. She doesn’t know where. But she is done. She is done with the fickle world. She showers once in two weeks. She cycles to the Polytechnic Institute of Milan to teach fashion anthropology. On her birthday party, with her large family at the table, she is lost; the chatter on the table is loud, but she is either in deep thought or no thought. One might say she is having a midlife crisis, but she is 77. Some might say she is preparing for the afterlife, but she insists it is a new life.

The man addresses her as “Mamma,” and records her through her displeasure and general disenchantment. He trains the lens on her as she prepares to leave. By making this film, he is doing something that annoys her – a son, crying out for attention, to keep her invested in him. To keep her sane. She is sick of his filmmaking, because filmmaking is nothing but life re-edited. He perhaps deliberately sounds like the 13-year-old boy in awe of her and desperate for her most beguiling version. He guilts her into “designing” her departure so that, if nothing, he gets a story out of her. The Disappearance of my Mother is a personal scribble of a documentary. It is everything – intimate, indulgent, whimsical, experimental – at once. Its form is an afterthought; it is first and foremost a medium of communication between two close individuals struggling to understand each other. It’s almost as if the film has been stitched together out of not the primary interviews and conversations, but the discarded observations between them; the surplus footage, with the mother caught between shots and not in them. It works wonders for the most part. Yet, this 90-minute film is propped up by undeniable strokes of access filmmaking. Know that the mother is iconic Italian ex-supermodel Benedetta Barzini, and the director is her son Beniamino Barrese, and The Disappearance of my Mother sacrifices some of its personality at the altar of sociocultural portraiture.

The wrinkles on her face are deepened by her work with names like Warhol, Dali, Penn. A Marxist and feminist, Benedetta is tired of the person beauty required her to be. There is an entire legacy, a life lived in the glare of expectations, behind her current phase. And a phase it does look like. In a sublime five-minute-long montage, the son constructs her rise in the late ‘60s with her words juxtaposed over recreations interspersed with real footage of her retro photoshoots. Much of this plays out in the tone of melancholy and memory, which in turn lends perspective to her grey todays. But there is, curiously, no mention of her marriages, heartbreaks and (other) children – a gaze that sort of contradicts the film’s uncomfortably close, and open, stance of the intersection between fame, physicality and womanhood.

The last ten minutes, however, are oddly moving. There is a sense of an ending; it’s not hers or his, but theirs. Conflict makes way for compromise. It’s these final moments that go a long way in changing our perception of what might otherwise pass off as a ponderous private essay. A few truths dawn upon the viewer and not the voyeur: The camera is perhaps a cover for a man to simply follow the woman he loves. To the deep sea and the dark forest. But mostly in her room, between fantasies of deep seas and dark forests. It slowly becomes clear: The disappearance is not physical but mental. She is fading; her strength has taken a toll on her heart. He aids her escape, if only to let her imagine that she did once have the courage to do so. He indulges her, if only to exploit her complex personality. And perhaps the reason he goes out of her way to make her feel like a film is so that she might miss feeling like a mother. His mother.Film

Rating:   star

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