America is the country that invented the concept of Baby Boomers, and now that they’re aging and so often becoming a problem for their adult children faced with the challenges of elder care or even elder understanding, it should be surprising but is not that other countries are the ones best at addressing the issue in their artistic expression. As with most films regarding emotions and intimate looks at characters, foreign films do it best. Hollywood just has big clumsy hands when it comes to tender subjects like death. I recall writing something along these lines years ago when I reviewed Mia Madre by Nanni Moretti (also about the impending death of a parent), but I state it again now based largely on two films that separately grabbed my attention and my emotionally-exhausted heart – two foreign films that managed to squeak past my aversion to sentimentality and shed new light on my personal experience and a subject that is growing more socially relevant and painful with every aging day.
The first film I already reviewed and was perhaps my favorite at Tribeca Film Festival 2019 (but is still cycling through film festivals and does not yet have a distributor, alas) – Our Time Machine, by S. Leo Chiang, a Chinese documentary about a young-adult artist and his ailing artist father, with an astoundingly savvy story structure and creative style for a documentary. It’s the very definition of “achingly beautiful.” The second is in theaters now and Helen Highly Recommends you see it, whatever gen-letter happens to define you – The Disappearance of My Mother, an Italian documentary by Beniamino Barrese, a young-adult photographer, about his relationship with his aging, ex-supermodel mother, Benedetta Barzini. This film is as full of contradictions as real life – incongruities rarely acknowledged much less captured with the candor of this cinematic memoir that is both shocking and soft. I think it’s interesting that both films are about two generations of artists who in some way collaborate to make their movie, and also that both are not American, but both being truly excellent, they speak with universal appeal.
When I was caring for my elderly uncle, the hospital and social workers kept wanting him to sign a legal document declaring his desire for emergency resuscitation or intubation or not. As his health care proxy, it was my responsibility to explain to him exactly what DNR and DNI meant and get him to make an official decision for himself. He was mentally competent, but this was information he did not want to know and a decision he did not want to make. He did not want to die – was not ready to let go, but choosing the exact conditions under which he was willing to survive was too much for him. Discussing any details related to his future passing was simply off limits. We spent enough time in hospitals for me to witness other families in similar crisis, and it seemed a commonly tormenting consideration. So, it may seem odd that I felt such an affinity to Beniamino Barrese and his mother when watching this film. Through the telling of a jarringly different scenario, the relatable sentiments rise to the top. What resonates in this strange story is the truth of Benedetta’s insistence that toward the end of life the things that matter most cannot be seen or spoken.
Benedetta wants to disappear. She is exceptionally clear on what she wants. An iconic fashion model in the 1960s, she became a muse to Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. As a radical feminist in the 1970s, she fought for the rights and emancipation of women. But at the age of 75, she becomes fed up with all the roles that life has imposed upon her and decides to leave everything and everybody and never come back – to disappear to a place as far as possible from the world she knows and escape the gaze of the culture of images. She wants to go to an island “so far away that no one could ever get there.” She details her plan to her worried son; she will “just go,” with no credit card, bank account, phone or computer – with nothing.
It is her son who is not ready to let go. He persuades her to let him film a movie of her before she leaves – partially to record a memory of her and partially to delay her departure. She agrees with great reluctance (and frequent outbursts of anger). She tells him that she sees the lens as her enemy and it hurts her to be filmed but she agrees because “I tried in every way to tell you no, but no was a wound to you,” so she will bear the pain of the lens in order to spare him, at least for a while. Thus, this documentary unfolds as a sort of battle between mother and son, his determination to capture her image and her stubborn fight for liberation.
It’s not about young love and heartbreak; it’s about grown-up love and loss.
Benedetta rues that today everything is relegated to photography and nothing is left to one’s own memory. She declares that now she’s only interested in things that can’t be seen. She claims that despite all the photographs taken of her throughout her celebrated career as a model, none of them captured her true self. “The real me isn’t photographable.” In contrast, her son sees film as a way of preserving the people and experiences he fears losing. Starting at age seven when his father gave him a camera, he spent much of his youth photographing his mother, even before he knew she had been a famous model (a fact she hid from him) or before he became a professional photographer. Through photography, he was always trying to get closer to his mother, see her more clearly, connect to her more deeply.
In this film, there is much discussion (and passionate debate) about the nature of photography, and it leads me to recall Susan Sontag and her book On Photography, which was recently brought back to mind by a new biography of her in addition to the 50-year anniversary restoration and re-release of her movie, Duet for Cannibals – a film that feels crucial to me (and which you should see — my article here). Susan would be about ten years older than Benedetta if she were still alive, but it seems their paths would have crossed – both coming to cultural relevance in New York in the 60s. And while Barzini’s career as a fashion model may have seemed trivial to Sontag and her intellectualism back then, they certainly ended up with similar perspectives.
We see Barzini lecturing to young fashion students, warning them of the difference between fashion as free expression and fashion as a system of oppression by those who produce it. She rails against society’s obsession with beauty – similar to Sontag’s philosophies, explaining that imperfection upsets people because it suggests death, and there is tyranny in people’s fear of mortality.
Benedetta is not afraid and vehemently rejects fashion, despite her son’s pleading that she dress in something “elegante” to accept a lifetime achievement award. To that she says no. When he persists, she becomes irate and accuses him of being “petty bourgeois.” Perhaps the lady doth protest too much when she even refuses a bath in a modestly posh hotel room, after revealing it’s been weeks since she’s showered, saying she “distrusts luxury.” (It’s also been months since she changed her bedding, but “it’s perfectly clean.”)
She shows up at the awards event looking like some random homeless woman full of contempt, but it’s a chance for us learn more about her past and to see photos of her in her heyday. The film is not a biopic; there is no history lesson about her life. (I was left wondering even about who Beniamino’s father might be and read later that he has three other siblings – none mentioned in the film.) But the awards event tells us she was the first Italian model to appear on the cover of Vogue – discovered by the great fashion maven Diana Vreeland. And yet she “destroyed the stereotype of the brainless cover-girl.”
The most charming scene in this cinematic portrait is when Benedetta finally puts on a dress – a simple blue shift dress that is too large for her tiny frame, but she says she likes the color because it looks like the bottom of the sea. The two are leaving her Milan apartment together and as she crosses the cement courtyard outside, her son casually asks her to pose like she did when she was a model, and she cheerily (surprisingly) agrees, posturing by the trash bins and having fun despite herself. She is twirling and then he is circling around her with his camera. She is laughing. It’s the first time we see her joyful. And we also see that even at the old age of 75, dirty and without a drop of makeup, she is mesmerizing. It is magical to watch her move and make herself and her dress into daring shapes. We see that she is truly magnetic in that specialness clings to her, will not fade away, and she’s very much alive. It felt reassuring to me; this is not a woman who is capable of vanishing.
This is one of the film’s many contradictions; Barzini has argued persuasively that photography is static and flat, that it freezes and kills a live moment. But the moment in which she is most alive in the film is the moment in which she is posing for her son’s camera. She also spends a lot of time explaining her need to go away and disappear, and then at the end of one of these discussions, she glances up coyly at her son and asks, “Do you mind?” She says it like a teenage girl flirting with her beau. It seemed almost perverse, but it was unusually revealing. Her asking if he cares doesn’t invalidate all she said before about wanting to leave despite his pleading, but it shows that she needs him to want her to stay; his devotion to her may even be the thing that will empower her to go.
I won’t tell you how the film ends. Not that it’s a big mystery to solve. But these two spend a good amount of time arguing about how the final moment will be staged, each wanting their own resolution, and it’s worth watching how it plays out. This is not a masterful movie (as Our Time Machine is, btw). Its worthiness is not in creativity or brilliant narrative or great cinematography or urgent activism. It’s the relationship. It’s the way this film manages to feel more real and true than any memoir film I can recall seeing.
It’s not in a hurry and doesn’t have big ambitions; it is what it is. (Ever been to Italy? You know how Italians can take just three ingredients, all super-fresh and locally sourced, and toss them together and make them into an impossibly perfect culinary experience? That’s what this movie is. Deceptively simple.) It’s completely unpretentious. It’s intimate without being invasive, even as Benedetta pushes away the camera and Beniamino steals secret shots. It’s furious and it’s funny and it’s even dull and sluggish at times. It’s not about young love and heartbreak; it’s about grown-up love and loss, as only a foreign film will show you. Those Italians, it’s like they can tap into some ancient source of emotion in ways Americans just cannot.
More: American Adult-Child-of-Famous-Aging-Parent Documentaries
The more I think about it, the more I realize that this film also follows in an excellent line of documentaries about adult children and their famous, aging parents. The two that come to top of my mind are indeed American films, but I will let stand my stated affection for the special, foreign-film touch of the three docs I mention in this article. (To make the distinction though, the movies I discuss above are all stand-alone art films and not biopics or tribute films.) Still, in terms of terrific, American aging-parent films, I point you to two HBO Documentary flicks — Nothing Left Unsaid about Anderson Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt, and Bright Lights, about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. I did write about Bright Lights, which is a wonderful and overlooked film, and due to its tragic timing — its release just before the unexpected deaths of both great women, it becomes not just a documentary but a kind of cinematic obituary, which makes it all the more touching. Both these films are tributes to extraordinary “women of a certain age” and also powerful memoirs of the relationship between adult children and aging parents — something many of us can personally relate to, even if our parents were never famous.
Both films above are available online for streaming. In particular, Helen Highly Recommends Bright Lights as a celebratory and fun flick about real family, to watch in your free time during the holiday season. (If these two women can overcome their differences and troubles, then so can we!)