Benedetta Barzini is an interesting subject for a documentary. Interesting in the sense that she, landing her first cover of Vogue Italia in 1965 (a year after the magazine’s inception), has led a unique and original life — and interesting in the sense that there is seemingly nothing she hates more than being in front of the camera.
But here she is at Sundance, where she is the focus of a documentary film called “The Disappearance of My Mother,” directed by her son, Beniamino Barrese. It’s immediately clear that had any other filmmaker approached her, the model and activist would have promptly declined. But, to her son? She just can’t say no.
“The point is that I’ve done this for my son. Against myself — so that’s the main thing,” Barzini says the morning after the film’s premiere, where she watched it for mostly the first time alongside the audience. “And last night was the last part of the story, which I’d never thought of. I’d never thought of it being projected and shown to the vast public. But I also felt like it was a baptism for my son, an opportunity. America. America gave me an opportunity. I worked only as a model in America, in New York. And it was the beginning of my story, and my story ended up by teaching anthropology, the meaning of clothes in time. And all this comes from the experience of having worked as a model in Europe. And last night, I felt like my son was also being baptized in America, and that it was an opportunity for him.”
The movie, from RYOT Films, a Verizon Media company, follows Barzini with in-depth intimacy: Barrese films her waking up, reuniting with old friend Lauren Hutton, and often fighting with him over his desire to film her. More public moments are also captured, like her turn on Simone Rocha’s runway in February 2017 and teaching anthropology to university students in Milan. Though no plot or script was written, the storyline generally follows her desire to “disappear” and leave behind her life in Milan for one of obscurity.
When she agreed to the project, it was crucial to her to let herself be entirely genuine on screen.
“Last night, I felt like I was sort of naked in front of the public, because it’s all about where I live, and the things that I do, and also the fact that I didn’t want to use any sort of trick. There are many parts of us: some are visible, some are not,” Barzini says. “And one was I wasn’t going to change anything: the way I look, the way I dress, whatever I’m wearing. I wasn’t going to try to make it look better.”
Barzini is generally distrustful of images, both still and moving, because she finds they lack authenticity. Naturally, that butted heads with the creation of a movie about her life.
“The conflict was very strong, though, because I really don’t accept this world created only on images, and where people have to do selfies to remember that they’ve been in that place with those people,” she says. “It cancels your emotions and your memories. And then the other thing was something I’ve been working on ever since I was young, which is to not allow that anybody should change my looks. I said to myself, ‘no, you’re not going to change anything because I’m curious to see what you’re going to look like when you’re old.’”
Barzini, now 75, says she has held these beliefs since her modeling days, in the Sixties. She was discovered in 1963 Rome by Italian Vogue editor Consuelo Crespi; shortly after Diana Vreeland booked her for an American Vogue shoot, and her career in New York began.
“I was made into something artificial. I was turned into a ‘goddess’ with diamonds up here and feathers in there. You can take anybody; if you make them up, false eyelashes, super hairdo, whatever, you can turn anyone into a fake goddess. I was very aware of that,” she says. “I did think a lot about fabricating beauty, and forcing people to think [what] beautiful is. No, it’s merchandising, it’s marketing. And beyond that it’s what men want to see in women, and that annoys me.”
The film follows her journey toward disappearance; without spoiling the end, Barzini says she still does some modeling today, though she’s highly selective about the work now.
“I still do some modeling for two reasons. One, because I need the money and I don’t want to deny it. And also because it’s like getting on a horse; if you know how to horseback ride and you don’t ride for, like, 10 years and you get back on a horse after 10 years, you take it up where you left it off,” she says. “And actually, my feeling was that I left it off, that the phone stopped ringing when I was becoming a good model. And I didn’t get a chance to, let’s say, experiment inside this.”