An iconic haute couture footwear brand’s origin story is told in sometimes inspiring strokes in “Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams,” Luca Guadagnino’s story of the life and work of Salvatore Ferragamo.
Fashionistas, fashion historians, film historians, modern shoe icon Manolo Blahnik, Ferragamo and family members tell his tale, sing his praises and marvel at his many innovations, which revolutionized shoe design and construction and covered the feet of movie stars on and off sets from the silent era onward.
Ferragamo himself is heard in an interview that amounted to an oral history, relating his Southern Italian childhood poverty and early fascination with feet, that first pair of shoes he made for his little sister and the apprenticeship from age 9, into setting up his first business in tiny Bonita, east of Naples, before he reached his teens.
The soothing, almost comically-whispered narration by Michael Stuhlbarg fills in around the edges as he reads Ferragamo’s words, and almost hint at places this film might take us.
“I looooove feet! They talk to me” takes on an almost kinky, popophilia tease that the film never shakes nor explores.
But film buffs will perk up at Ferragamo’s American years, when a small-time Neapolitan shoemaker gambled it all and came to America to start over — at 17 — working briefly with a brother at a Boston shoe factory (“I was not interested in mass production.”) and quickly convinced his siblings to move to the west coast with him in 1915.
No, he didn’t go to Hollywood or even Hollywoodland. Los Angeles’ status as film capital was not yet established. Scenic and more tony Santa Barbara was where he opened shoe repair and custom-made shoe shop that was quickly embraced by the thriving local film community.
Making stylish, fashionable and above-all-else comfortable shoes for film productions had stars from Lillian Gish, Pola Negri and Douglas Fairbanks to every Pickford in film demanding and wearing his footwear. Cecil B. DeMille insisted on Ferragamo shoes for all his movies, Biblical spectacles included, and never walked onto a set unless he was wearing Ferragamo boots.
Italian-American filmmaker and Ferragamo shoe fan Martin Scorsese and others weigh in on this right-place/right-time part of the shoemaker’s history, the association that made him and the future Ferragamo brand.
When all of filmdom migrated to Hollywood, Ferragamo went with them, after first taking anatomy classes at UCLA to complete his understanding of the musculature and bones of the foot, allowing him to master the ability to design shoes both pedestrian and exotic that would fit, function and be comfortable to wear while dazzling any set of eyes that deigned to look down at the wearer’s feet.
By the mid-1920s, Ferragamo was famous — the subject of newspaper and magazine profiles — and flush with cash. There was nothing for it but to expand, and the only place to do that was where artisanal shoemaking still flourished.
It’s here that “Shoemaker of Dreams” stumbles in the telling of the tale. Clocking in at a generous two hours when it made the film festival rounds, trimmed to 1:50 for theatrical release, the film’s most glaring omission has to be obvious to all but the most fashion-obsessed viewer.
Ferragamo returned to Florence in fascist Italy in 1927. He struggled to set up his “Made in Italy” worldwide brand there, and even went bankrupt in the process in 1933. But he didn’t stay bankrupt, and skimming over his years living well under an authoritarian dictatorship, dismissing World War II with a blithe “It was not the happiest of times in Italy” may be the most grating euphemistic treatment of a war since Southern Americans took to calling the Civil War “the late unpleasantness.”
Yes, he continued “innovating” when leather and raw material shortages set in under a totalitarian dictatorship and its blundering wars of aggression. Glibly skipping over who the shoemaker catered to under nearly 20 years under this regime and its nattily-attired leader, its labor implications and the like in a nearly two hour film about a man who only lived from 1898 to 1960 is damned near unforgivable, even if he, the filmmaker and this film’s audience is only interested in “the shoes.”
But the shoes were his glory, and the ooing and cooing over this breakthrough, that elegant “Thief of Bagdad” slipper and the like gives us an interesting if seriously superficial grasp of the man who made fashionable footwear famous.
Rating: PG for smoking and a suggestive reference
Cast: Salvatore Ferragamo, Manolo Blahnik, Grace Coddington, Suzy Menkes, Deborah Nadoolman and Martin Scorsese, narrated by Michael Stuhlbarg.
Credits: Directed by Luca Guadagnino, interviews conducted and scripted by Giuppy D’Aura and Dana Thomas. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:50