Viewing any well-made documentary can be its own reward, regardless of a beholder’s interest in the subject at hand. On that count alone, Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams — telling the saga of legendary shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo — extends an appeal and fills in historical blanks for those of us who aren’t necessarily shoe fetishists, accessory historians, or fashionistas, in general.
“I love feet. They talk to me,” Ferragamo says, issuing a kind of mission statement early in the film. But there’s much more to the story.
Two areas of alternative, peripheral interests do leap out for our attention along the way in Luca Guadagnino’s intriguing doc: early American cinema, from the feet up, and the lore and lure of Santa Barbara in the early 20th century. It’s no incidental feature that director Martin Scorsese shows up in the film as a source, alongside a host of Ferragamo family members, film and fashion historians, and others in the know. Scorsese provides his witty insights into both the Italian immigrant experience, the state of California as a land of promise, and observations about the fledgling movie industry where Ferragamo’s legend first got its international reach.
He designed boots for westerns made in the early movie-making epicenter of Santa Barbara’s Flying A Studios and footwear for such stars as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. A move south to Hollywood, in sync with the folding of Flying A, bolstered Ferragamo’s reputation and work base in his Hollywood Boot Shop, and included hobnobbery with fellow Italian émigré Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Gloria Swanson, whose shoes in Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson played — pardon the pun — a footnote role. Work with D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille accentuated the notion that shoes help create characters.
We follow the driven and inventive young shoemaker from Bonito, Italy, as he apprentices in Naples, opens a shop in his hometown at age 12, and immigrates to Boston to work in a mass-production shoe factory. A trip westward takes him to Santa Barbara, where three of his brothers (Alfonso, Girolamo, and Secondino) lived, he made a connection with the Flying A, and he set up a shop at 1033 State Street (there oughtta’ be a commemorative plaque on the site).
Back in Italy, Ferragamo built his workshop factory, tapping into the skilled artisan tradition going back centuries in Italian culture. Fortunes rose and fell and rose again in Florence. During WWII, he drew on resourcefulness given the lack of materials, inventing the cork heel. An Italian critic makes the parallel of Ferragamo’s shoes — such as the fabled rainbow design— with such Italian artistic movements as the Futurists and commedia dell’arte, and another comments on the philosophical and mystical aspects of the shoemaker’s role throughout history.
As the dreamy, naturally innovative shoemaker explained, “I had not followed any master. I had not followed any school.” He also summarized his ethos in the deceptively simple axiom: “comfort combined with creativity.” Fittingly, an animated “choreography” of Ferragamo shoes serves as a climactic finale.
Aside from paying affectionate tribute to a fashion legend, Guadagnino’s film may, in the end, ignite the imagination and appreciation of the inner shoe fetishist. Present company included.
Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams is on view at the Riviera Theatre November 18-December 1. See sbiffriviera.com.