FEMINISIM: Once an iconic fashion model, now a radical feminist, Benedetta Barzini and son clash to capture her lasting image of liberation.

Astra Zoldnere
Astra Zoldnere
Zoldnere is a Latvian film director, curator and publicist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: July 31, 2019

The Disappearance of My Mother

Beniamino Barrese

Filippo Macelloni


The Disappearance of My Mother is an intriguing relationship story, a clash between two individuals and worldviews. Fascinated with images, photographer Beniamino Barrese tried to make a movie about his mother, Benedetta Barzini, while the ex-fashion model does her best to avoid the filming process. «F**k off», – she says to the camera. Once a goddess of the image industry, now she is its toughest critic.

The personal is public

This private family story opens a public discussion about the meaning of images in contemporary society. As autoethnographic research, The Disappearance of My Mother connects Barrese’s biography with a wider cultural and sociopolitical context. He writes that his mother never told him she was a fashion model. He discovered her portfolio by accident and was surprised seeing her on the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In the 60s she was hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon. Intrigued about combining the two disconnected images of his mother, Berrese started his project – a documentary about love and hate of images, pictures, and movies.

A feminist perspective

What happened to Benedetta Barzini? Well, she has become a feminist. Now, we get to know her as an older woman who teaches fashion students a critical perspective. Benedetta shows them pictures of beautiful girls covered with leaves and other objects from nature. She poses a question – what do these pictures represent? As the students remain clueless, she provides the answer herself. The pictures sell the terrible idea that woman stands for nature, whereas man represents reason and thought. She keeps on attacking the fashion industry and its exploitative mechanisms by which men shape the image of women.

The Disappearance of My Mother, a film by Beniamino Barrese

Barzini is not the only beauty icon from the 60s who has become actively involved in the second-wave feminism movement. This year’s Berlinale screened Callisto McNulty’s documentary Delphine and Carole. That film portrays the French New Wave actress Delphine Seyrig who, together with friend Carole Roussopoulos, became the first video activists in France making movies attacking male dominance in society. Their provocative 1981 documentary Be Pretty and Shut Up portrays famous French and American actresses (including Maria Schneider, Jane Fonda, Jenny Agutter, etc.) who criticize sexism and representation of women in the film industry.

Once a goddess of the image industry she is now one of its toughest critics.

So, there was a #MeToo Movement before #MeToo. And now, almost 50 years after the second wave of feminism, the fashion industry has only become worse. The images of women in advertisements, fashion magazines and even in movies are not only controlled but also photoshopped by men. Women are made slimmer, younger and more perfect, artificially. At the same time, many teenage girls – and even women ­­– try to resemble these fake models. How many waves of feminism will we need to change the suppressive system?

Director’s perspective

Barrese also takes another position – as an advocate of the image. However, we get to know too little about Barrese’s love for them. His notes tell us more than the film does: «Ever since my dad gave me a camera when I turned seven, making images has been a strategy to keep hold of the people I loved, saving them from the passing of time». Employing image as a vessel of memory is an understandable motive but is it the only one? Barrese challenges his mother with intimate questions: «when did you last take a shower?» «Two weeks ago». Are there Freudian motivations behind the obsession with his mother’s image? He asks different models to reenact his mother’s shots and read from her diaries. What does this fixation mean? Did he miss her as a child? What about his siblings and father we never hear about? More self-reflection, more nakedness, and more openness would have added another dimension to the documentary.

How many waves of feminism will we need to change the suppressive system?

Perfect ending

By demonstrating the possibilities of the image, Barrese spoils viewers with various visual materials and filmmaking approaches. He combines different aspect ratios, black and white with color, archive materials, reenactments, and observational techniques. For the perfect ending, he asks his mother to finally collaborate. In the film, the former beauty queen talks about her possible disappearance – not clear whether this disappearance is meant to be real or symbolic. To resolve this intrigue, the director of the film takes an elegant approach. His witty playfulness reminds us of shots from the French New Wave. Barrese finds a visual way to allow his mother to have the last word. His strategy to defend the image is to demonstrate that moving pictures have the potential that words do not have. The image is so strong that it can even kill itself.

Modern Times Review