Benedetta Barzini’s Disappearing Act

Shot by Betty Sze

Benedetta Barzini has long shorn the fragile frivolity of modeling days past. You could mention the men’s names she’s most notably attributed with – Warhol’s factory, muse sessions with Salvador DalĂ­, shoots with Penn and Avedon – but they’re not what this is about. Now, the model veteran who was on the first cover of Vogue Italia has turned to confront the camera’s unfaltering gaze and her lack of authority over her image with, The Disappearance of My Mother, Barzini’s unflinching documentary broadcast as a rebellious glimpse into an exceptional life. Intimately captured by her son, cinematographer Beniamino Barrese, Barzini is unyielding in her attitude towards the camera and fed up with society, and in turn fashion’s, unrealistic pursuit of perfection for women. In anticipation of the film’s release today December 6th via Arthouse distributor Kino Lorber, we sat down with Barzini and Barrese to discuss her dissonance with her modeling past and present, feminism in her homeland, and the process of capturing a life that wants to disappear.

Your beginning in New York and in the modeling industry informs a lot of your current position now.
Benedetta – Yes, the first era [living in New York] I was seven and I didn’t know where I was. I just looked around and felt uneasy, took the Madison Avenue bus to go to French school, and come back. We were learning about cutting up the land of France, the rivers in France, the mountains in France, and knew nothing about the country where I was living – it was very alienating. I loved the stationery shop around the corner on Sixth Avenue and I used to steal Bazooka bubble gum and I’d look at magazines like True Love and Little Lulu. My memories of that period are kind of messed up with a feeling of loneliness of not knowing where I belonged because my mother tongue is French. Then I learned English and Italian was like the third language. I didn’t have an idea of who I was.

When I came back to New York, the second time was in a way much more concrete because somebody said – that somebody being Diana Vreeland – we want you for 10 days in New York. I put all my energy into trying to do the best I could to please the people that had called me, which had given me an opportunity. I stayed five years and I worked 99% Vogue editorial because my face was too exotic of a Mediterranean look for ads. It was a face that would sell to Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Italians, Greeks, but not to the WASP society, the blonde and blue-eyed girls. But that saved me, because I never made money. It saved me from losing the sense of reality and I never left the ground, the base.

What did that experience teach you about the industry?
Modeling taught me a lot and I realized it afterward. In those days I was just having experiences and putting them in my package. I learned to be professional, to be on time, to not say you’re cold, you’re hungry, you don’t like the clothes or whatever. Also to realize that when photographers like Avedon would jump and scream things like “terrific, fantastic, divine!” that it’s not me that’s divine. It’s what they’ve done to me, what they’ve got me in – the editor, the photographer, the light, the brands, saw in that picture what they wanted to express. So I never really fell into any trap like considering myself a top model or whatever. I would take my eyelashes off and would go into the street looking like anybody else without ever playing the part of the model.

Going back to the film, there are times when you touch on the feeling that you didn’t really have agency over your body. All these people have their vision of how they want to mold you but no one asked your opinion.
No, you don’t exist.

Why do you think fashion, an industry that’s specifically designed to sell primarily to women, put models in such a subservient role back then?
They do what society or the market wants them to do. Let’s start with this question. Why do women have a hundred thousand outfits and men only a few? If you start thinking about it the market is basically for women or for young people, teenagers. A man with a job usually wears a jacket or pants and goes to work, dressed very symmetrically. But women, you could do anything you want with women…they’re clay.

That gives you an idea of how little women count in real decision making. And how they fall into the trap still nowadays of being seductive and beautiful the way men want to see you. Women still are trying to appeal to men. They look at themselves in the mirror, and they don’t see themselves. They see the way they should look, what makes them look better, and there’s no awareness of the right to be authentic.

Do you think fashion in the modern world, can be used as a powerful tool for feminism?
I think that fashion is a topic or a discipline that can give very significant lessons to women based on objective observation and not personal opinion. When you talk about being genderless for instance, when you walk into a toy store and you’re buying something for a boy, the world already says he’s not going to wear pink and he’s going to play with a ball and with a truck. Or if it’s a little girl she’s going to play with plastic food and the supermarket cart and the washing machine and dolls, you realize that if you really want to understand genderless, you must first understand what is missing from the definition of being a male and female. Even something that is “genderless” is the continuation of hypocritical marketing. They don’t care. They’re making money.

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

Yet, you continue to work in this industry – what brings you back?
They call me but I’m not working full-time as a model professionally anymore. Sometimes they call me for a fashion show or for a campaign of some sort but once you do a campaign, you don’t do it again, because your face is too significant. You can’t make me up in any way or retouch but it’s okay because now as an old lady, I don’t resent the opportunities that I get to make a little more money. Since you can’t make me up more than so, it’s a real face and I try to send the message that, whatever job you do in life, you can do it with dignity. So I don’t mind when I get a chance.

When Ben first came to you and said, listen, I really want to do this film on your life, you represent something important to me. What convinced you to do something you weren’t comfortable with?
Well, it is practically impossible to say no to your son because that means that you don’t trust him, that you don’t have any respect for his work, that you don’t give him any credit. But it was really difficult. I tried to explain the reason why I refused to do this and he just didn’t want to hear it. So I had to say yes, but at that point, I gave myself two exercises. One was to show the way I was, not to comb my hair, not to look any better, not to try to get rid of some of the spots, nothing. Because my “message”, even if it’s not expressed in words, was, here’s an old lady and you can see her the way she is. The other thing was the fact that I live in a very essential way, I’m getting rid in my life everything that is not fundamental. I don’t think that wealth is going to bring any happiness to you and you begin to realize that sooner or later you’re going to have to give up everything anyway. Give up control.

Italy can be very insular. Working in an industry that allows you to interact with people from different walks of life and then coming back to Italy, how did you cross your two adult lives together? I read you continued to be a professor and teach fashion through the lens of anthropology.
It was a miracle that the school asked me because I don’t have any degree. This university in the south of Italy asked me to teach and I invented something called, The Meaning of Clothes in Time. It’s about the history of fashion, but why? It helped me to understand the women’s condition, understand anthropology, theology, religion, and the position of women in the whole world is the position of somebody who doesn’t exist. She doesn’t even have a surname. There’s no genealogical descent of a woman – she belongs to families, to her father, to her husband. And that’s it. So it’s interesting that the market expresses its major strength and energy to sell to somebody that doesn’t even have a surname.

What would you change in the fashion or modeling industry if you had the chance?
Well, I would rethink it over but not alone. The point is what is the use of fashion? The answer is, making money but if you take that answer away, there is no use in fashion. You can’t fight an industry that has a goal of making money. The one thing that must happen in time is the awareness of women that will stop consuming stupidly what they’re told to do. Slowing down the neurotic pace from once every 15 days or every month or every two months. It’s not sustainable, but you shouldn’t take it on from the side of fashion. You should take it on the side of women’s awareness because that’s where it starts.

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

What was the process of starring in your own documentary and how did you feel when you saw it for the first time? Did you know that he was going to follow your direction at the very end scene of the film?
I didn’t interfere in any way with, in a way the movie was constructed, of course when I saw it, I thought, well she’s a nice old lady. What the hell! I tried to be very detached. I hope she can get away from everything the way she wants. I hope she finds a little corner in the world where the white man has not destroyed the land and the people living on that land. And that doesn’t exist.

I wanted to get away from that because I might be a bit of a coward in this. I can’t struggle anymore. I’m old, I’m tired. That’s my real face. Which is not the pretty little 20-year-old girl with false eyelashes. It’s an old lady with wrinkles all over and that’s it. I thought it was a good lesson for women too.

Absolutely. Legacy, I think is not perfect. It’s life. It’s just life.
But perfection is so boring. So you fix it. Make you real.

Beniamino – All these details, and they were painful some of them. For example, the first shot when I look at her from very close in the beginning, I thought it was beautiful. I didn’t think that it could be invasive. But she told me, “This is painful for me to watch myself from so close.”

It’s real. How was the process of obviously doing something that she was uncomfortable with, and then still continuing and kind of fighting through the pain?
Beniamino – We had an agreement. It wasn’t me invading her, aside from that scene when she was sleeping and I kind of didn’t tell her. Other than that, the whole frame of the movie was agreed to and she knew. I was also expecting reactions because she’s slightly temperamental. The agreement was based on the knowledge that she is intelligent and she knows that as a kid, you have to separate from your family and from your mother. For me, it was like, “Okay, you’ve always been betrayed by these kinds of fake images for the purpose of selling. Now we’re going to do something for the purpose of communicating ideas and inspiring people and it’s nice.”

Shot by Betty Sze

Kino Lorber in association with blockchain-powered TVOD platform Breaker is releasing The Disappearance of My Mother on Dec 6 in New York and Dec 13 in Los Angeles, followed by additional cities.

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