By Carrie Batten, The New Yorker:
Most of us, when we arrive at a particularly trying moment in life, begin to indulge in escapism. Who hasn’t dreamed of extracting themselves from all obligation, moving to a remote island, throwing their cell phone into the ocean, and leading a life of ascetic satisfaction? Usually, the impulse is fleeting. But for Benedetta Barzini, a seventy-six-year-old supermodel turned professor, this kind of longing is a full-bore obsession. Barzini, who was born into great wealth, was thrust into the world of modelling as a teen-ager, in the nineteen-sixties, and was the first Italian woman to appear on the cover of Vogue. With her slyly knowing gaze, Cleopatran features, and delicate gait, she became élite at the exact moment that fashion was becoming a world; she rubbed elbows with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd and posed regularly for Richard Avendon and Irving Penn. All along, though, she knew that her youth—and professional value—was marching toward expiration. Eventually, Barzini became disillusioned with the very idea of beauty and with the constant stream of imagery that tried to capture it. As she grew older, this disillusionment intensified into a rage that could only be eased by one thing: total separation from the material world. “I want to disappear,” she likes to say, holed up in her detritus-strewn apartment, in Milan, where she smokes cigarettes and vapes compulsively. “I want to disappear and never come back.”
This desire is the subject of “The Disappearance of My Mother,” a new documentary by Barzini’s son, the young Italian filmmaker Beniamino Barrese. Barrese spent most of his life trying to escape the shadow of his mother. (He recently told me that her charisma “took a toll on her children.”) But as with many filmmakers and storytellers—I’m thinking of Sarah Polley and Jacob Bernstein, both of whom made excellent documentaries about their families—the subject closest to him was also a source of inspiration, and one that became impossible to ignore. In 2014, Barrese began filming his mother, at first in her classroom at the Polytechnic Institute of Milan. As her desire to “disappear” became more pronounced, he began to shape a film around it. The result is a sombre and lean portrait of an old woman’s relationship to her celebrity and to society at large. Barzini has a Scrooge-like attitude to most things: beauty, money, the media, commercialism, holidays. But, above all, she detests images, and that hostility is the central conflict of the documentary. Much of the film is about Barzini’s resistance to its production. We watch her puttering angrily around her apartment as her son films. “Go fuck yourself,” she tells him at one point, when she discovers that he’s secretly been filming her while she rests under her comforter. Of course, underneath all of this conflict is an agonizing paradox: the more that Barzini retreats from a conventional human life, the more she becomes reduced to a mere set of images.
In February, when the film made its début on streaming platforms, Barzini seemed like a cranky, stubborn eccentric. But in subsequent weeks, as COVID-19 descended ruthlessly on Italy’s elderly population, her urge to disappear took on a new significance. In the film’s most discomfiting scenes, she’s plagued by health problems—the movie lingers on her smoker’s cough and features a scene in which she discusses recent doctors’ appointments for an infection. The pandemic has preyed upon many of Barzini’s peers, and the strict lockdowns imposed in Italy and elsewhere have created their own sort of disappearance for billions of people. I wondered, then, how quarantine was affecting Barzini. For one, she’s a high-risk person living in one of the disease’s epicenters. And yet the times seemed to align eerily with her fantasies, creating a world without commerce, social expectation, or human interaction. Was lockdown a relief or a greater form of constriction?
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