Documentaries are inherently exploitative to some degree. Whether it is the filmmaker crafting footage to tell a story, editing out footage to support a thesis or message, or engaging with one’s subject and impacting the “truth” through self-awareness, or all of the above, the documentary as a medium is always a version or interpretation of the truth and not pure, unfiltered fact.
Beniamino Barrese’s debut film Storia di B. – La scomparsa di mia madre (The Disappearance of My Mother) explores this underlying conflict through a most personal subject: his mother. He is the son of Benedetta Barzini, a supermodel, activist, teacher, and more, whose final wish as she ages is to simply disappear – making her a reluctant subject for a documentary. She says early on that she “disdains” images, which cannot fully capture someone’s essence and spirit, a sentiment which comes at odds with her son as a director of film, a medium requiring images to communicate, emote, and express.
The footage is arranged in a non-linear, but thematically cohesive manner: exploring her early modeling career, through footage and images of Barzini as early as the 1960s; her today, arguably a recluse fed up with the Milanese society she has long been part of; her as teacher, guiding and challenging students to reframe their understanding of marketing, fashion, and the image; and her as mother, bickering with, and sharing warm moments with, her son the director.
It is often a very difficult film to watch, bearing witness to an older woman telling her son that she simply wants to disappear from the world. The film’s subject engaging with the documentary form pushes the line between fact and fiction, as she and Barrese discuss ways to shoot her final good-bye, before she changes her mind and wants to stage something else. Barzini hates the image and wants to escape from it, but also wants to leverage it and help visually craft the send-off she wishes to stage and have recorded.
A critique some have had on the film is in the central conflict between mother and son, subject and documentarian: is it another instance of the male gaze, exploitation, or filming a subject without consent? As many scenes as there are of Barzini being angry or frustrated with Barrese’s camera, there are glimmers of happiness: a smile as she takes pride in her work as a model, her twirling in a new dress as she films one of her staged good-byes. If anything, the choice to include the more combative moments show Barrese’s awareness of the camera’s gaze, and transparency to tell a full story, both good and bad.
In a Q&A following the film, Barrese described the film as “imperfect,” though it is all the more compelling and powerful through such “imperfection,” a fine balancing act of contention and collaboration, fact and fiction. Storia di B. – La scomparsa di mia madre is a strong, challenging debut work, and with Barrese subverting and questioning genre right out of the gate, he’ll be a very exciting filmmaker to follow.
Screened at the 31st Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2020.