‘Shoemaker of Dreams’ Review: Luca Guadagnino’s Delightful Love Letter to a Fashion Icon

As the auteur behind “Call Me By Your Name,” Luca Guadagnino has established his bonafides as the preeminent chronicler of romantic love. His documentary work often applies that focus to passionate figures in love with what they do, from Tilda Swinton to Bernardo Bertolucci, celebrating cinematic artists with the same gusto that he brings to the form. His delightful “Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams” is the best example of that tendency to date, a delightful two-hour love letter to iconic Italian shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo that doubles as a history of Hollywood glamour from the ground up — literally — as it delivers a delectable tribute to his mouthwatering designs. While hagiographic to the extreme, “Shoemaker of Dreams” makes a compelling case that the histrionics are justified.

Ferragamo’s story tracks a series of major historical moments: Blending excitable talking heads, revealing home movies, and ample closeups of ostentatious feet, the movie follows Ferragamo from poverty in the early 20th century to Hollywood stardom at the birth of the industry, through the Great Depression and WWII, when he found new footing (sorry) with his luxury goods in Florence. Even viewers unfamiliar with the fashion legacy at hand will find Guadagnino’s poetic investment in Ferragamo’s work infectious from the start, as hand-scrawled lettering establishes the setting and the camera roams into the center of a factory to marvel at the work within. If goosebumps haven’t yet been raised, let narrator Michael Stuhlbarg take care of you, as he reads a captivating passage from Ferragamo’s memoir, which gives the movie its title. “I love feet,” Stuhlbarg purrs, as sculptures of them twirl in closeup. “They talk to me.”

The rest of the movie explains how that happened. Guadagnino has assembled a robust set of talking heads, blending personal biography with fashion criticism as he explores the wonder at the center of Ferragamo’s designs. Interviews with his wife, children, and grandchildren help explain his obsessive personality, while perennial cinematic ruminator Martin Scorsese pops in from time to time to make more general observations about the character as both a central contributor to the art of cinema, and a key figure in Italian history as a whole.

“Shoemaker of Dreams” excels at showing how Ferragamo navigated the radically different challenges of Italian and American fashion industries during periods of tremendous upheaval in both societies. The movie tracks his childhood in the small town of Bonito, and his decision to move to Naples as a teenager, where his interest in shoemaking was dismissed as a lower-class pursuit. Hoping for better chances in America, he follows the classic immigrant arc to Ellis Island before settling in California at the birth of the Hollywood industry. Designing shoes for performers just as the Hollywood star system took place, his client list soon encompassed everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. Gathering clips from many of their works, Guadagnino manages to slip in a mini-history of early celebrity, using Ferragano’s journey as a template for illustrating how movie stars went from lower-class employees to fashion icons with his help.

Ferragano’s own voice is heard throughout, thanks to bountiful interviews he did throughout his career, and he’s the one who explains some of the darker passages of his story. “Shoemaker of Dreams” doesn’t dance around the impact of the depression, as well as a debilitating car accident, on Ferragamo’s career — incidents that sent him to head back to Italy in bankruptcy and forced him to rebuild in the midst of Mussolini’s rise. But even fascism couldn’t contain Ferragamo’s talent, and while the movie doesn’t explore the designer’s tensions with the institutional forces around him in too much detail, it allows him to become the hero of a saga with several daunting turns. As with the shoes themselves, Ferragamo’s story has been romanticized to the extreme, elevated to a kind of Hollywood fantasy itself. “There are no bad feet,” Stuhlbarg tells us, reading Ferragamo. “There are only bad shoes.”

A kindred spirit, Guadagnino excels at turning surface details into entrancing experiences (even his disturbing “Suspira” remake was a pleasure for the eyes). “Shoemaker of Dreams” manages to become one of the great fashion documentaries in recent memory because it inhabits the lively nature of the mythology associated with the artist in question, even as it elucidates the substance that sustains the legend.

Experts explain his ability to produce work “flattering to the feet and creative at the same time,” and an energetic factory montage shows exactly how that’s done. The process of using corks and translucent materials illustrates the degree of innovation in play, while charts break down the way the curvature of his shoes valued comfort as much as presentation. Critics ranging from Todd McCarthy to Suzy Menkes explain the context of Ferragamo’s achievements, and some can’t help but drool over its precision. One woman cradles the twirling shoes worn by Douglas Fairbanks in 1924’s “The Thief of Baghdad” in orgiastic glee, claiming the words she wants to describe them would be unfit for camera. Guadagnino wants to hear them anyway, but “Shoemaker of Dreams” suggests the erotic appeal of the work defies precise language, because Ferragamo invented his own.

The filmmaker, often glimpsed on the edges of the frame, clearly harbors the same giddiness for Ferragamo’s talent as many of his interviews. By the end, he can’t help but indulge in a final, ridiculous CGI dance that finds animated Ferragamo shoes taking charge. It’s a bit much, but such exuberance matches the nature of Ferragamo fandom. “Shoemaker of Dreams” works as well as it does because Guadagnino fills each moment with such delight for his subject that it’s impossible not to end up consumed by that spell.

Grade: B+

“Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams” premiered out of competition at the Venice Film Festival. It was recently acquired for U.S. distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.

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