The Disappearance of My Mother (2019)

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When I took a short film course in an academic commune in Seoul back in 2000s, I learned about the nature of cinema as a medium and the power of the camera. In a way, films are very similar to plays in that they have actors who play their parts based on a script. However, for the former, there’s the camera who plays the role of a gatekeeper. It dictates what we see. What it’s showing us is always closely related to the director’s intention.

For Benedetta Barzini, a formal model who was famous back in the days, the camera is her enemy. To be more accurate, she despises images in general simply because she thinks they are all lies. She even said that her true self can never be photographed. As she mentioned, it is because photographs and videos contain a snapshot of time and space, which is unnatural and never be the same as the object in them because an actual object in the real world always changes and evolves.

As a model, she probably would have experienced an extreme form of objectification with photographers and directors while wearing fancy clothes and makeups in projects whose goal is to sell beauty and fashion, which eventually made her tired and feeling disgusted. It’s not surprising that in the movie, she often yells at her son Beniamino, the director of the movie, to put down the camera.

The movie shows Barzini’s life as an activist, a feminist, and an educator too. She’s been criticizing how fashion industry objectifies and capitalizes women while undermining their rights. In a way, it’s not difficult to understand her desire to disappear from this world, not via suicide but more like by becoming a hermit and distancing herself from the mundaneness.

At the other end of this movie, there’s Beniamino, a photographer and a film director of this film, who deeply loves his mom and who’s always been filming himself and his mom since his childhood years. We can easily get that his main desire to capture Barzini in his camera is closely related to his love for her. At the same time, his act of filming her also makes me feel like Beniamino is protesting against his mom’s desire for disappearance. When we see the loving nature between the two, we can also see that Beniamino is perhaps making this movie because he is afraid that this could be the last time he can remember her in this medium. Like any children, he doesn’t want to lose his mother. Even though Barzini often criticizes Beniamino that him filming her is an act of violence, she lets him do so, probably because she’s a mother and she understands him to a degree.

Even though the movie is uneventful, these two conflicting desires make this movie very interesting and creates a constant tension. The ongoing conflict makes us pause and think about the relationship of a mother and a son, and the relationship of a model and a photographer. As a son myself, who deeply loves his mom, I often empathized more with Beniamino, which made some of the scenes in the movie heartbreaking like when Barzini strongly rejected the idea of memory in general and being remembered.

Thinking about these relationships as a conflict itself is interesting but I also think it’s possible to look at this dynamics in a slightly different way. Assuming that a filmmaker’s desire is purely about capturing the image of his beloved object (like Beniamino’s desire), perhaps it’s possible to look at their asymptotic endeavor as a form of love because they continue pursuing this goal even though they know that it’s impossible to capture the very true nature of their object (as Barzini says).

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