Through several beautifully costumed movies—including A Bigger Splash and I Am Love—Luca Guadagnino has always been a filmmaker of lusciously chic images. So it was about time that he signed his name under an expressly fashion-focused film. With his documentary Salvatore: Shoemaker Of Dreams, the Italian director does exactly that, delivering an opulent portrayal of the renowned titular icon who created the legendary Italian fashion label Salvatore Ferragamo alongside the burgeoning Hollywood of the early 20th Century.
Compared to something like Frédéric Tcheng’s Dior And I, a masterful, gold-standard fashion documentary that imaginatively braids the House of Dior’s storied past with its present and future, Guadagnino’s Salvatore takes a rather standard structural approach in charting the path of Ferragamo’s legacy, telling a young immigrant’s rags-to-riches story chronologically, for the most part. But to Guadagnino’s credit, that proves to be exactly the right approach for the awe-inspiring by-the-bootstraps tale he wants to tell, one that’s gloriously haunted by the ghosts of Hollywood past, supported and elevated by Ferragamo’s unparalleled craftsmanship. In that regard, Ferragamo’s life story already possesses a deeply fascinating cinematic texture and quality, invalidating all superfluous narrative embellishments Guadagnino might have introduced elsewhere.
Sometimes through Ferragamo’s own narration—it’s a treat to hear his voice during these rare moments—but mostly via passages cozily read by repeat Guadagnino collaborator Michael Stuhlbarg, the saga of Salvatore begins from his childhood in Bonito, Italy, when he was a poor boy mesmerized by the craft of cobblery. He was an apprentice here, and a novice yet skilled shoemaker there, before he was even a teen, learning and fine-tuning the technique of durable footwear as a child laborer, unprotected by the era’s laws. Everything changed for the young Salvatore when he immigrated to America in 1915 at the age of 16 after convincing his family that shoemaking was his calling—it probably helped that he designed his sisters’ first communion shoes, which became a hit within his community when he was only about 12.
Adapting Ferragamo’s 1955 memoir, fashion journalist Dana Thomas aptly selects the most novelistic segments of the book, giving the viewer a nostalgic snapshot of a young Italian immigrant with big dreams. In that spirit, we learn that Ferragamo wrapped crumpled pieces of paper inside a dollar bill in order to look sufficiently funded during his third-class journey to America, and wore a gabardine coat with a fur collar to avoid looking too Provençal while entering the country through Ellis Island. Afterward, Thomas and Guadagnino take us on another journey, this time, a cross-country one Salvatore took from Boston to the warm shores of the West Coast, after realizing that the East Coast’s harshness of style in clothing and architecture didn’t really mesh with his sensibilities.
In California—namely, Santa Barbara where the heart of the film industry used to beat—the young shoemaker found his groove, quickly proving indispensable to the American Film Company and the Silent Era with footwear he designed for everyone, including Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, and Lillian Gish, many of whom he befriended.
There is so much material to gush over in these segments for both fashion enthusiasts and cinephiles alike, from the iconic curled-toe shoes of The Thief Of Bagdad and recordings of Cecil B. DeMille and Charlie Chaplin, to various talking-head interviews with a dizzying parade of high-profile names such as Martin Scorsese, Manolo Blahnik, and Christian Louboutin. Many of the other interviewees consist of Ferragamo’s descendants and living relatives, nicely complementing his professional legacy (articulated in the film by various film critics and fashion industry moguls) with personal anecdotes both meaningful and intimate. There is similarly a wealth of archival footage throughout the movie that anyone mesmerized by the history of Hollywood—both the industry and the Los Angeles neighborhood nested under the shadow of the iconic real estate sign—will find breathtaking.
While this is a conventionally crowded canvas, Guagadnino and editor Walter Fasano leanly snap together all the pieces as neatly as a Ferragamo shoe, showing us on occasion the making of a pair of the designer’s most famous footwear styles. The most significant sequences in that regard show the assemblage of a sparkly red pump that feels very much like an update of Dorothy’s ruby The Wizard Of Oz slippers, as well as a colorful wedge sandal that gives the impression of an artistic layered cake.
While Salvatore doesn’t expand on Ferragamo’s venture into other avenues of fashion, or offer critical observations on today’s luxury goods commerce (unlike 2019’s Halston, another Frédéric Tcheng-directed fashion documentary), it still supplies a complete portrait of an artist so scientifically minded that he took various college-level courses on human anatomy in order to understand the wonders of the foot. Capped off with a Busby Berkeley-style musical number consisting of circles of shoes doing a synchronized dance, Guadagnino’s documentary is very much like walking through an immersive and interactive museum designed to make one feel nostalgic for a bygone era of art and craft. It’s magical stuff.