Benedetta Barzini wants to disappear. “But how do you film a disappearance?” asked Dr. Marie Orton of the Department of French and Italian. Dr. Orton began her lecture on Disappearance of My Mother (2019) by stating that this film is ostensibly a documentary and is also very divisive. Critics strongly disagreed with each other over the film and her goal was to force us to come away with our own conclusions and never to finish this film without one.
Barzini was an early supermodel. Despite how it seems nowadays, supermodels are a rather recently invented phenomenon. In the mid-1800s they began to use models for fashion. Previously, all clothing was displayed with mannequins. After photography improved, humans were brought in to model the clothing, but these women were still referred to as mannequins. In the 1940s, again as photography improved, there began to emerge famous photographers. As they gained more power they began to request certain models for their shoots. It was only once these models were in demand by photographers that they started to make their own names for themselves. In the 1960s, some models signed with specific fashion houses, and in the 70s and 80s they signed with specific brands. It was then that the supermodel as we know them today began.
While the titular mother in Disappearance of My Mother, Benedetta Barzini, began her modeling stardom at only fifteen years old, she realized that the industry was benefiting more than she was. Barzini would go on to become a feminist, a marxist, an activist, and even a university professor — “The same trajectory as all of us,” Dr. Orton joked. Barzini was concerned about the prevalence of the gaze, particularly the male gaze, in the world of fashion and the way that gaze began commodifying women’s bodies. This is partly why she wants to disappear.
The film does not give an overview of Barzini’s life and career, rather it is a series of vignettes on her life now. Like with all real people, the past is present but only when it’s relevant. Viewers of the film will certainly learn about her modeling career and her feelings about the industry but not through a traditional, cohesive narrative.
Dr. Orton suggested that as viewers we watch for instances of viewing and representation. Barzini will look at the camera and defiantly turn it off throughout the film. How does the presence of a camera change a subject’s—or our own—behavior? How does it change relationships? With Barzini’s own son directing the film, we gain some access to his mother’s complicated life but their close relationship also obscures what viewers may find the most interesting. Dr. Orton finished by saying, “Documenting a disappearance is kind of a self deconstructed endeavor, and I think that’s the whole point. The lens, this economy of photographic representation, is always going to out maneuver any attempt to avoid it, because it’s impossible not to gaze.”