For three years, since 2017, Italian director Luca Guadagnino has been working on a documentary dedicated to the life and work of shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo together with his family and the Ferragamo Foundation. However different this project might be from the elusive fiction of The Staggering Girl (the short film he did in collaboration with Valentino), many of its impressionable sequences tailor-made to fit Ferragamo’s artwork-shoes manage to activate the enchanting qualities of handmade high-fashion objects. Indeed, objects acquire a higher status in the eyes of Guadagnino, since his meticulous approach to alleviate the economic weight that comes with such a brand. Positioning craft as art is the main theme of Salvatore – Shoemaker of Dreams and the documentary is both a celebratory and an educational one, combining archival footage, the narration of actor Michael Stuhlbarg, and interviews with fashion critics, costume designers, journalists, as well as notably, Martin Scorsese.
The opening sequences oversees a multi-stage process of cutting, stitching, and gently glueing a shoe together in a present-day workshop that combines individual artisan touch with divided labour, the film rewinds back to Salvatore’s childhood and uses the designer’s own voiceover to recount the passion for shoemaking that defined his life from then onwards. Balanced storytelling is what Salvatore – Shoemaker of Dreams is striving for, incorporating talking head interviews within the personal account. Most living members of the Ferragamo family take part in forming the narrative, although the most touching scenes surely are the ones in which the voice of Salvatore’s widow Wanda Miletti cracks under the weight of both happiness and grief.
Guadagnino’s film feels encyclopaedic as it wanders through the whole 20th century and Ferragamo’s life in the US, mostly, his work for United Artists, Hollywood studios, and of course, the celebrities of the time. A story of cinema unfolds but one told through one of filmmaking’s unjustly peripheral elements – costume design – and through one that’s even more tangential, shoes. One of the most intriguing sequences features costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis analysing in depth and detail the aesthetic and social implications of Gloria Swanson’s shoes in 1928’s silent drama Sadie Thompson, that were a “little too high” and the bow decoration “a little too big”, since the protagonist was a sex worker in hiding. Such a diligent approach in unveiling the mystery behind Ferragamo’s design is one of the main virtues of the documentary, but most of it comes across as repetitive in its attempts to mythologise the designer even further.
Penned by fashion journalist Dana Thomas with a very intuitive message – how accomplished Ferragamo was in communicating his talent for both art and craftsmanship – the script fails to acknowledge the context around the most difficult years of European history. Aside from a couple of mentions of “the war” (that should stand in for WWI) and Mussolini (a substitute figure for the whole of WWII), the documentary refuses to place its subject-matter in a larger context, which, of course, works for the compact, glorifying aim of it but also leaves an impression of selective historical memory. Maybe this is the contradiction that lies in the heart of Salvatore – Shoemaker of Dreams.
Even if the aesthetic attention given to talented designer’s models, coupled with an impressive animation sequence of dancing shoes a’la Disney attempt to separate the film’s form from its content, the burning question persists: how many of the viewers will ever get to see, let alone wear a Ferragamo shoe? A production that is so tightly tied to the high fashion industry always emits a certain glow but one to only marvel at from afar, and one that only shines on selected patches of maps and history books.
This review is from the 77th Venice International Film Festival. There is currently no US distribution for the film.
Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance film critic based in London. Her bylines include MUBI Notebook, photogenie, Electric Ghost Magazine, Girls On Tops and Screen Queens.