The Disappearance of My Mother: If I Stay, by David Bax
Throughout The Disappearance of My Mother, Benedetta Barzini is seen living in a cluttered apartment, brazenly refusing to shower for days on end and constantly taking pulls from an e-cigarette. You almost wouldn’t guess that she was once one of the most celebrated and sought after models in the world except for the fact that, in her mid-1970s, she is still strikingly beautiful.
She’d probably hate to hear that, though. Though she largely walked away from modeling in the early 1970s to focus on politics and academia, Barzini remains so desperate to separate herself from fashion, advertising and the manufacture of deceitful imagery upon which she made her name that she is contemplating leaving everything behind and starting over somewhere else. As suggested by the title, The Disappearance of My Mother is directed by Barzini’s son, Beniamino Barrese, who would very much not like her to vanish from his life and so, with debatable levels of self-awareness, has endeavored to manufacture a deceitful portrait of her that he can hold onto. She is, unsurprisingly, a less than willing participant in the documentary that is ostensibly about her.
Barrese’s worst impulses, though, have nothing to do with imposing a narrative on his disobliging mother. Instead, the least successful element of The Disappearance of My Mother is Barrese’s overuse of music. Often mawkish and obtrusive, the score and soundtrack’s plaintive strains become glaringly emotionally instructive.
His best impulses, on the other hand, seem to have come to him in the editing room. The Barrese we hear (and occasionally see) on camera may be frustrated by his subject’s resistance to him but, to its benefit, the final product of The Disappearance of My Mother embraces her prickliness. When she rages at him, damning his “bloody camera” and yelling at him to “get the fuck out,” it’s a little bit funny. But when she and an old friend gently send him out of the room so they can catch up, Barrese lets us see him and his camera as his mother must, still a child playing with a toy.
For those unimaginative viewers who insist on a strict definition of the documentary format as a brand of journalism, gussied up but adhering to the relaying of facts, The Disappearance of My Mother will seem like a failure at best, an affront at worst. Barrese blurs the line, if one exists, between documenting and directing, not just by staging shots and entire scenes the way many documentarians do but also by leaving the evidence of his direction in the finished film. He encourages Barzini to dress up for an event to which she’d rather remain ensconced in her parka. Then, later, he admonishes her for changing her t-shirt off-camera in the middle of the day, as this will cause continuity problems for him. Yet, these intrusions, rather than inspiring annoyance, instead engender sympathy for Barrese. He doesn’t want his mother to leave and so he has endeavored to freeze her in time in the form in which she exists only in his head. Even the word “disappearance” is his. As with the invented scene of Barzini rowing a boat toward the horizon, it’s a way of softening her intended departure by romanticizing it.
Barzini’s plan to walk away from everything is in keeping with her relationship to her early career. Her beauty made her famous but beauty is fleeting. As far as she is concerned, so is everything else in the world. But Barrese wants to believe that motherhood, at least, is more permanent than that and The Disappearance of My Mother is his fervently mounted but devastatingly unconvincing argument.