“The Disappearance of My Mother” and the Male Gaze

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Through researching and thinking about the new documentary “The Disappearance of My Mother” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, there’s so much to say. Although I’ve never seen the film, just reading the reviews, studying the photos, and replaying the trailer inspire an abundance of ideas in my mind. I feel the ironic contrast between glamour and reality, particularly concerning womanhood and societal expectations of beauty, stands out the most to me. In fact, Laura Mulvey’s film theory called the male gaze, which she describes in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” appears to be fascinatingly embodied within Beniamino Barrese’s film. Mulvey examines how male filmmakers define the way women should be seen, reinforcing a sexual inequality. That component seems integrated into Barrese’s documentary, even though he’s the son of his film’s iconic and reluctantly famous subject Benedetta Barzini. While the love within this documentary centers on the parental, it’s still clear that the power broker, the gaze behind the lens, happens to be male.

Because of this dynamic, where the film’s creator is a man and the star happens to be a woman, the male gaze certainly adds a layer of meaning to Barrese’s work. Yet so many other factors come into play as well, complicating the film’s visual definition. More than fifty years ago, Barzini made an international name for herself as a supermodel. She had been discovered while innocently walking down the street in Italy at the age of twenty. Her striking looks caught the attention of a fashion writer and editor. It’s understandable why Barzini made such an impression. She was quite a beautiful young woman who definitely exuded an exotic allure. But her remarkable loveliness remained just a sliver of her identity. Not long after becoming a model, Barzini rebelled and embraced Marxism, expressing her feminist perspective in articles she penned, and eventually becoming a university professor. One of the scenes from the trailer shows old footage of her confidently marching down the catwalk while her voiceover laments the superficiality of women’s bodies used as if representing actual talent.

Barzini’s fierce awareness of this reduction of her essence to a mere sexual object certainly adds dimension to the discussion of image and the simplistic use of women for the pleasure of men. Indeed, Barzini realizes this truth and criticizes it without any hesitation. Yet more than fifty years later, she submits to being an image before the cameras once again. Only this time, Barzini is performing for her son, though she’s resistant at times and doesn’t seem to hide her anger when his camera becomes too intrusive. I think Barzini’s transition to intellectual pursuits, a decision to seek more substance for her life than the passivity of a famous muse, demonstrates the evident character behind her physical beauty. Furthermore, it shows how a photograph can be misleading in what it reveals or doesn’t reveal about a person. Barzini rebelled from the camera’s simplistic portrayal of her as a person and as a woman. So it’s no wonder she is intent to leave the world behind, even her own son, to define herself beyond the restricting image a camera’s lens necessarily produces.

One of the aspects of the trailer I absolutely love is the anti-image of womanhood. Barzini happily shows herself with all of her wrinkles and the many imperfections that have become imbedded in her face over the years, her grayish black hair streaming around her thin shoulders. There are some pictures on the film’s Facebook page that show her blowing smoke from a cigarette in the air that drenches her in pure grayness. The most vivid aspect of these images is the liveliness in her eyes. That unapologetic countenance is simply terrific. And I believe it makes her look more beautiful than she ever did as a celebrated fashion model so many decades ago.

It’s true that Barzini, in part, is the product of the male gaze. But from what I can tell, this documentary gives her the startling power to reshape how a woman should be seen in terms that are truly inspiring.

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