'The Disappearance of My Mother': An Admirable, But Aimless Documentary That Says Too Little With Too Much [Sundance Review]

One day, you and everyone you have ever loved will die. As painful as this idea is to ponder upon at times, it remains true, obviously. Time moves in one direction and holds no partiality to anyone. Have you ever truly thought about getting old? Not in a theoretical sense, but in a “This will totally happen to me” sense? Chances are you probably haven’t. Why? Because the idea of getting old is terrifying, and if “The Disappearance of My Mother” serves any purpose at all, it functions perfectly as a pertinent warning to the youth of the 21st century — enjoy your life while you still have it.

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Helmed by first-time director Beniamino Barrese, “The Disappearance of My Mother” is a documentary that invites viewers into the life of the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, an Italian fashion model and feminist icon. As a means to catalog his mother’s life before she “disappears” from the public spotlight — and perhaps from her son’s life as well — Barrese sets out to chronicle the intricacies and complexities of the woman he admires most.

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Referring to “The Disappearance of My Mother” as “intimate” seems almost obvious, but one solitary word cannot fully encapsulate how utterly personal the documentary comes across. Barrese guides the audience through his mother’s mindscape, and as a thoughtful, remarkably insightful woman, the documentary reflects this sentiment through its visual language and fluid editing. Barzini’s reflections, which range from her thoughts on motherhood to the futility of memory, catalyze a much-needed pulse through the film’s lifeline, but only provide the barest hints of investment. Which is to say, there is very little here for anyone, other than Barrese, to connect with.

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Generally speaking, documentaries are typically hit or miss for your average filmgoer, and “The Disappearance of My Mother” is practically designed to repel the aforementioned crowd. Considering that the director is aiming to create an ethereal, thought-provoking piece, conventional pacing and structure do not factor into Barrese’s goals for the film. The filmmaker possesses an immovable fixation on crafting a film that leisurely flows from scene to scene, and although the documentary’s abstract progression feels natural, it also stands out as one of its unignorable flaws.

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The foundational defect at the heart of “The Disappearance of My Mother” is that it spends too much time on saying too little. Yes, the documentary is competently constructed, visually pleasing, and admirable in its intentions, but the film is entirely directionless. Many of the ideas that the documentary constantly revisits are briefly touched upon, but firmly established, early in the film’s runtime, but fail to reach a solid resolve by its conclusion.

By its nature, it is clear that Barrese set out to craft a film as a means to properly tribute his mother — a cinematic love letter to his mother’s impact on both him and the world. However, what the director may not have calculated for is a consideration for his audience. Many viewers, and in fact most viewers, are likely unaware of who Benedetta Barzini is, and by its conclusion, “The Disappearance of My Mother” does not clue you in as to why you should care. In the midst of his passion and outright obsession (Barrese’s fixation with acquiring footage and setting scenes borders on unsettling at times), Barrese falls victim to what some might consider self-indulgence or, at the very least, misguidance.

Faults notwithstanding, “The Disappearance of My Mother” is a noble effort, and as the subject of the film, Barzini herself is an intriguing personality; her perspective on the world is genuinely moving to hear at times, and her insights often work their way into your mind, inspiring you to openly consider your own life. Similarly, Barrese’s talents as a filmmaker cannot be disregarded. The director manipulates time and space with a collage-like precision, and his prowess as a cinematographer retains enough visual interest in the documentary to deter any lasting distaste for the film.

But, beyond a commendable amount of love and effort, there’s nothing substantial to take away from “The Disappearance of My Mother.” While you might find the ideas of youth, obsession and beauty bouncing around in your head after viewing the film, they probably won’t last long, and chances are, your thoughts are vastly more interesting than the film that provoked them in the first place. [C-]

Check out all our coverage from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival here.