As the director of the best-dressed films in contemporary Italian cinema, it’s not surprising that Luca Guadagnino was the man approved by the Salvatore Ferragamo luxury goods brand to make a devoted documentary ode to its long-deceased founder. Anyone expecting Guadagnino’s usual extravagant stylistic flourishes applied to the subject, however, may be surprised to find that “Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams” is a rather conventional affair, detailing the celebrated shoe designer’s journey from humble village origins to early Hollywood success to fashion-world royalty in straightforward strokes, crammed with talking heads and flickering archival footage. More a sensible pump of a doc than a flashy stiletto, the film nonetheless offers plenty to delight fashionistas, with particularly welcome detail on the practical craftsmanship of Guadagnino’s fancy (and often fanciful) footwear.
At a full two hours, however, the film is undeniably overlong, and far more engaging in its first half, which covers Ferragamo’s hard-up Neapolitan beginnings and lively career as a shoemaker to the stars in 1920s Tinseltown with a mixture of romantic evocation and chewy historical expertise. Once the focus drifts from the designer’s life to his legacy, things get rather less interesting and more dutifully reverent, particularly as a parade of extended family members offer their own heartfelt but often vague tributes to a man many of them never knew first-hand. Sony Pictures Classics already snapped up worldwide rights (outside of Italy) to “Salvatore” before its Venice premiere, but a bit of trimming would be advisable prior to release if the film is to follow in the well-heeled footsteps of other recent fashion-docs like “McQueen” and “Dior and I.”
Fashion journalist Dana Thomas is an apposite choice of writer to pen the doc’s script. She had a 2007 bestseller with “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster,” a study of the corporate consolidation of family-run luxury goods businesses, so she understands the value of the Ferragamo company’s enduring kept-in-the-family model. Not that the film gets into any modern nitty-gritties of fashion retail. Thomas works principally from Ferragamo’s 1957 autobiography “Shoemaker of Dreams,” meaning that his voice — whether present in vintage recordings or channeled through Michael Stuhlbarg’s soothing narration — predominates, with high-flown effusiveness about the art of his craft.
Even before any voiceover kicks in, that tone is set with a wordless establishing sequence that follows the progress of a single Ferragamo shoe through the production line, from the effortlessly precise cutting of the leather, through the secure application of a high heel, to a final gloss of red sparkle. The final product resembles a very chic upgrade of Dorothy’s ruby slippers in “The Wizard of Oz,” as if teasing how much classic Hollywood will figure into proceedings.
First, however, there’s a brisk summary of Ferragamo’s upbringing as the eleventh child of 14 in a working-class family in the village of Bonito, and his early fascination with the local cobbler — to the consternation of his elders, who regarded shoemaking as the lowest of all trades. Undeterred, he moved to Naples aged just 11 to master the craft at the city’s most fashionable stores, before heading home to open his own shop around the time he hit puberty, and finally setting sail for America while still in his teens. It’s almost surprising a narrative biopic hasn’t been made about this precocious education alone, perhaps through a dewy Tornatore-style lens, though Guadagnino moves through it quite briskly.
Once the young Ferragamo arrives at Ellis Island, “Salvatore” really hits its stride with an appealing mixture of diarized fact, biographical speculation and “go west, young man” mythology. Settling in Santa Barbara — back when that, rather than Hollywood, was the epicenter of the young American film industry — he plied his trade making shoes (and, of course, cowboy boots by the dozen) for various studio costume departments. Among his admiring patrons was Cecil B. DeMille, who allegedly quipped, “The West would have been conquered earlier if they’d had boots like these.” As the star system came into being, meanwhile, Ferragamo’s shoes became a glamorous go-to for the likes of Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and his close friend Rudolph Valentino.
Even cinephiles who can’t tell a slingback from a wedge sandal will be engrossed by this passage, supplemented as it is with input from various film critics and historians, plus an animated-as-ever Martin Scorsese. It’s hard not to feel a pang of regret when we move on to Ferragamo’s Italian homecoming in 1927: The designer’s glory days may have been ahead of him, but the film never regains that degree of fun, as we’re informed in rather cursory fashion about his establishment of a new Florence workshop, his filing for bankruptcy in 1933 and his eventual resurgence against a backdrop of fascist political turmoil. (“It was not the happiest time in Italy,” we’re told, a bit coyly.) The Second World War provided unexpected opportunities for Ferragamo to show his design ingenuity, as he dealt with a leather shortage by working resourcefully with materials like cork and wire.
Still, his evolution into a fashion-world heavyweight is covered with slightly Wikipedia-like profiency, while even talking heads like Christian Louboutin (who discusses the value of innovation over invention) and Manolo Blahnik don’t have particularly inspired insights to bring to the party. And despite the heavy presence of the Ferragamo clan in the interview ensemble — including his late widow Wanda, and several of his six children and 23 grandchildren — we’re not told anything of substance about the man himself, beyond what we glean from a smattering of pretty but contextless home-movie footage.
The film’s narrative essentially stops with Ferragamo’s untimely death in 1960 and Wanda’s family-urged takeover of the company. Fashion nerds may wish for more detail on how the brand expanded into other accessories and evolved with the times (or, indeed, for any attention paid to Ferragamo’s accomplishments in men’s shoe design). Laymen, however, may feel they’ve had their fill — “Salvatore” seems conscious of the compromises it must make to engage both crowds.
Perhaps an unexpected flight of fantasy at the close was one of them: a CGI “shoe ballet” by Oscar-nominated animator PES, which envisions some of Ferragamo’s most famous shoe designs as dancing figures in a swirling Busby Berkeley-style musical number. Its gaudy digital opulence doesn’t match anything else in the film, which makes it feel more tacked-on than climactic — but you can’t call your doc “Shoemaker of Dreams” without a bit of teetering whimsy.