The next time you come home from a long day with sore, blistered feet, take heart: Your feet aren’t the problem. They are your shoes.
And this comes from the master, the late Salvatore Ferragamo, who declares in director Luca Guadagnino’s loving documentary “Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams” that throughout his career, “I have found that there are no bad feet. There are bad shoes.”
Now, whether you can afford a pair of Ferragamos to let your feet live their best life is another question. But it is fascinating to discover how obsessively Ferragamo, born into a poor Italian farming family at the turn of the 20th century, studied the human foot in an attempt to create the perfect shoe, combining creativity and, above all, comfort. “I love legs,” he wrote. “He’s talking to me. He even studied anatomy as a night student at the University of Southern California, peppering the professor with questions about the skeleton—but only about the feet.
That’s just one of countless beautiful anecdotes crammed into Guadagnino’s often fascinating, unashamedly adoring and also perhaps somewhat overstuffed study of the designer, using Ferragamo’s own recorded voice, and his 1955 memoir narrated by actor Michael Stuhlbarg. Working with the Ferragamo family, the director had an amazing amount of material to choose from: Between the family foundation and museum archives, numerous family members to interview, plenty of top cultural commentators, as well as gorgeous old Hollywood footage, you can almost feel Guadagnino trying to get it all in. Then again, he knows that some of us could spend all day watching movies about Hollywood, fashion, and most importantly, great shoes.
And these ARE great shoes, especially if you like shoes that tell a story. For example, the famous “rainbow” shoes produced in the late 1930s, shiny gold sandals sitting on a platform of layered suede layers on a sole made of cork – a welcome innovation at a time when leather was hard to come by (Ferragamo pioneered platform soles and the wedge heel). Shoe lovers will enjoy the segment where we watch how this shoe is made today and looks amazingly modern, step by step: cutting, gluing, beating. (Shoe later stars in his own mini-film, a whimsical animated “shoe ballet” that closes the documentary.)
Then there’s the almost dangerously, rebelliously sexy shoe worn by Gloria Swanson in 1928’s “Sadie Thompson,” a pair of high-heeled black pumps with an ankle strap and big white bows that scream, “Look at me!”
However, we begin with Ferragamo’s youth as the 11th of 14 children in Bonito, a village near Naples. Rejecting his father’s views that shoemaking is a menial career, he proves his worth by making a pair of dirty shoes overnight for his sister’s approval. At the age of 9 he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, at 11 he was making shoes and at 16 he boarded a ship to America. After a quick stop in Boston, he hops on a train and heads west—to Santa Barbara, home to the fledgling film industry. As director Martin Scorsese – the best of the many commentators here – says in California, “anything goes. You could make it three or four times.”
Watching the first westerns, Ferragamo knows he could make better cowboy boots—and he does. Then he graduated to all kinds of movie shoes, including 12,000 sandals for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent epic “The Ten Commandments.” His name is growing and his fans include the biggest stars of the day — Swanson, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks (and in later years everyone from Greta Garbo to Audrey Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe.) He has moved to Hollywood, where he lives near Charlie Chaplin and Valentino they stop to chat in Italian. He sets up his own shop, a star magnet.
Guadagnino gives us a history lesson in Hollywood itself, not to mention the birth of the “movie star” and the role fashion played in it. (It’s great fun.) In 1927, Ferragamo returns to Italy and chooses Florence as the base for his plan to use Italian craftsmanship to make shoes for clients in America. It’s a plan fraught with risk and early setbacks. He declares bankruptcy in 1933, then rebuilds and finally buys a lavish 13th-century palace for his company—a triumph of self-confidence.
Despite seemingly countless interviews with the family, there is still a feeling that we don’t always delve deeply into a man’s character or personal life. This eventually changes when, late in the film, through beautiful shots shot by Ferragamo himself, we meet his bride Wanda, a young woman from his village.
It is Wanda who, aged 38 and a mother of six, takes over the business when her husband dies suddenly of an illness in 1960, overseeing the expansion into a global luxury brand. But that is not covered here. Wanda Ferragamo died in 2018 at the age of 96 (thankfully she was interviewed for the film), and her years at the top of a business empire after never working in her life would be a fascinating element of this story.
But that will have to be another movie.
“Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams” was rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for smoking and suggestive reference.” Performance duration: 120 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition PG: Parental supervision recommended.
How to watch
What: ‘Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams’
When and where: 3 p.m. Friday, January 13 at the Annenberg Theater (Palm Springs Museum of Art), 101 N. Museum Drive, Palm Springs
When and where: 2:15 p.m. Saturday, January 14 at Regal Cinemas, 789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs
Costs: $13 for general seating
More information: psfilmfest.org