Review by Sean Boelman
Luca Guadagnino’s documentary Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams debuted at the Venice Film Festival two years ago, where it was received mostly warmly. It’s no wonder that it took so long for the film to come out in the states, because there isn’t much of an audience for this bland, if altogether inoffensive biography.
The film explores the life and career of shoemaker and luxury fashion designer Salvatore Ferragamo, who started from humble origins in his childhood to become one of the most iconic names in fashion. The film is certainly a love letter to everything that Ferragamo did in his career, but that adulation comes at a cost.
Like many biographical documentaries, the filmmaker seems to get distracted by his adulation for his subject. The audience gets it — Ferragamo had an extraordinary career whose significance spanned industries. However, in trying to provide a broad survey of how he affected fashion and cinema, the film ends up going way too big.
One would think that the issue with a documentary like this would be that its focus is too narrow. Shoemaking is a narrow niche within the fashion world, and it’s hard enough to make a compelling fashion doc as is. However, the film fails to engage with the subject’s life in any way beyond what a decent research paper could accomplish.
In an attempt to give the film a more personal feel, the film heavily utilizes narration from frequent Guadagnino collaborator Michael Stuhlbarg. Ferragamo wrote an autobiography that writer Dana Thomas clearly used heavily to inspire her research, and — ultimately — the final draft of the film.
While Stuhlbarg’s voice is exquisite in every sense of the world, one can’t help but feel a similarity to an audiobook in the way his narration is presented by Guadagnino. Of course, the readings are accompanied by archive footage that gives the designs being talked about a feeling of life, but it still feels strangely formal, rather than conversational as a film should.
The film also features contemporary interviews, many of which are from people working in the fashion world today. One of the more interesting interview choices is Martin Scorsese, whom one might not immediately think of as an expert on all things shoes. However, he is well-researched on all things Italian and Italian-American, and he adds some interesting insight into the cinematic exploits of Ferragamo.
Given that it was made by a filmmaker as talented as Guadagnino, audiences probably expect something less conventional than what Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams is. It’s not a bad film, but it falls victim to so many of the common pitfalls of biographical documentaries that it’s hardly essential viewing.
Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams opens in theaters on November 4.