When this documentary begins, we see a pair of red bejeweled high heel shoes being made. They’re moving from person to person. Several very skilled hands with a specific task to do in putting together this exceptional pair of shoes do a beautiful job with their particular role in the assignment. It’s actually rather fascinating to watch them become ready to wear. We then hear from Salvatore Ferragamo speaking of how he loves feet. They talk to him. In his hands, he felt their strengths, weaknesses, vitality and failings. He tells us feet are a “Masterpieces of fine workmanship.”
He grew up in the small village of Bonito, Italy, in 1898. His parents were farmers who grew wheat, wine, corn and almonds for oil. As we learn this information, we’re treated to stunning black-and-white footage, helping us to envision the time and place of his birth. At a young age, Salvatore liked to watch the cobbler in town, seeing how he diligently and delightfully worked on shoes for his clients. He learns all he can by helping where he’s needed.
Director Luca Guadagnino tosses in some parts of the old cartoon “The Shoemaker and the Elves.” This is as Salvatore tells us that he begs his parents to let him become a cobbler. They don’t want this for him because it was the work of a poor man. At ten, he goes to Naples for an apprenticeship, learning everything there is to know about correctly measuring, molding, and cutting a shoe. It took him two weeks before there was no more for him to learn. He returns to Bonito and opens a little shop. He wasn’t even a teenager!! Talk about strength and courage! In 1912, he visited a show company his brother worked at. They had assembly lines where machines made 1,000 pairs of shoes a day. Salvatore didn’t like mass production. He had standards, but he did take some ideas from what he saw and improved on them for his own work. This is when he really began to dream big.
He worked in Boston some but decided out west was where he wanted to be. He wants to be where the land is far-reaching and boundless. Boston made him feel like he was still in Italy… as if he was sitting on a postage stamp.
One of the most fascinating parts of the film was when he mentioned how he learned how to make shoes. He said he was never really taught apart from watching. He didn’t go to school, and he didn’t have a master teach him the skills he had. He goes on to say he “had a clear vision that he had done the work before. Where? I do not know. But everything that I have done since my boyhood time, it has been work which came back to me. All I have to do while I work is to sit down, recall what I knew about this work, and do it again.”
He was alone in his move west. He didn’t feel alone at all. He loved the landscape and the people he met. He settled in Santa Barbara, feeling he was where he was meant to be. His brothers were with him and when things got stable, they got a small shop together.
Deborah Nadoolman tells us that Salvatore was an innovator in his field, knowing the foot so well that he was the creator of the fabulous platform shoe. He started working for the film studios, making boots and shoes tailormade for the foot going in them. This was very needed because before this, they were wearing shoes that were coming from far away or that didn’t fit very well. Some of his first customers were Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Lilian Gish. It was after this that his made-to-order list was getting long. He got the attention of Cecil B. DeMille, who said of Salvatore’s work, “The west would have been conquered earlier if they had boots like these.”
Another fascinating thing you’ll learn about this legend in shoemaking is that he began to notice that individual shoes fit unique body shapes and weights differently. He decided then to take a class to learn human anatomy. From this, he’d be one of the best at making a shoe that had both comfort and style.
The documentary is very intimate but not heavily so. We hear from his wife, Wanda, who loved him dearly, passing on his love of art to his children and grandchildren. They all speak of him fondly. When interviewed, they’re proud of his work and accomplishments. The many patents that he had.
Narrated by Michael Stuhlbarg, the film feels special. It’s littered with archival footage, images of actors and actresses wearing his creations, some specially made for them and it’s an interesting take that the shoemaker is a magician with powers. Recall Cinderella.
The man had to start over more than once. Many have referred to him as a genius. And after watching this, I’d say they were correct. He was a genius and this documentary is a highly intriguing, bewitching watch. Stay for the fun “shoe ballet” (created by stop-motion artist Pes) at the beginning of the end credits. The music is as fetching as the heels. I watched it twice.
SALVATORE: SHOEMAKER OF DREAMS
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Produced by: Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Gabriele Moratti
Writer: Dana Thomas, Dana Thomas
Starring: Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Martin Scorsese, Deborah Nadoolman
Narrated by: Michael Stuhlbarg
Runtime: 2h 0m
Genres: Documentary, Biography
Original Language: Italian/English
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics