Martin Scorsese’s Fetish for Sexy Italian Shoes
In the new doc “Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams,” filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”) examines the extraordinary life of Salvatore Ferragamo—and his A-list fans.
VENICE—When Martin Scorsese can give hours of his precious time to talk about shoes, you know this is about more than what’s underfoot. In Luca Guadagnino’s new documentary about the life of Salvatore Ferragamo (Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams), we see much more than a story about shoes. It is a story about desire, immigration, and heartbreak. All that’s missing is a full-on admission that this is actually all about a foot fetish.
The film, which is being hawked as a fashion documentary, is anything but. It is a well-researched and beautifully written film about a man who happened to be in fashion. The Ferragamo family opened up its personal archives to Guadagnino, who tasked journalist and fashion author Dana Thomas, the woman behind Fashionopolis, Gods and Kings, and Deluxe, to do the real digging. What she found laid the groundwork for a great American success story.
In many ways Ferragamo’s fascinating life as an Italian immigrant to the United States during the 1920s is exactly what the biopic genre was designed for, with all the texture and complexity and geopolitical issues at the forefront. Scorsese is one of the film’s anchor interviews, dispersing wisdom about his own Italian heritage with sheer adoration for Ferragamo’s style.
The shoes—while they are the Italian’s claim to fame—are somehow secondary to his life story. Ferragamo, billing himself as a simple cobbler from Italy, played a pivotal role in 1920s Hollywood, which paved the way for what it is today. In the film, we see him dressing the stars by day and playing bartender at Hollywood elite parties by night, always superficially on the periphery but more likely as integral a part of the scene as any of the A-listers.
Ferragamo’s story begins in Naples where, as a mere child in 1909, he worked as an apprentice learning to make handcrafted shoes. Exactly how he arrives in Hollywood in less than a decade is slightly vague, but when he does it is clear that his fascination with women’s feet won him an adoring audience. The Ferragamo family, who commissioned the biopic, had clear boundaries about what not to discuss. The foot fetish and the Ferragamo family’s whereabouts during World War II when Mussolini made it difficult for any prestigious Italian to escape involvement—one way or another—are the film’s obvious blind spots.
Still, the shoes Ferragamo created during the 1930s would look en vogue even today, especially his 1938 wedge sole sandal (originally designed for Judy Garland), shoes that have adorned the feet of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and which have been reinvented countless times over the decades.
Which brings us back to the fetish. Nowhere in the entire two-hour film does anyone actually mention the obvious. But through the sultry archival footage, we see Ferragamo prostrate on the floor essentially massaging ladies’ feet to get a feel for how the shoe should fit—though the suggestion is always that there is just a little bit more to it. Even the opening scene shot around a giant Matisse bronze of a foot teases that this erogenous zone is truly the inspiration.
The film pays extraordinary attention to Ferragamo’s craftsmanship, which is shown through long scenes of him using raw materials to somehow craft red carpet shoes. While it is in part a rags-to-riches story about a poor boy from Italy, the timing of his transformation to cultural powerhouse is as carefully sewn as one of his couture shoes.
But perhaps the best scene in the whole film is archival footage of a young Ferragamo on a train riding through the Midwest during a time when neither the geographic region or his own life’s work were fully developed. As the scene plays out, it is as if his own evolution is unfolding.
The film pays great attention to Ferragamo’s focus on craftsmanship during a time when the world seems focused on fast fashion. The contrast makes Thomas’ screenplay even more relevant, since she dedicated her last book, Fashionopolis, to sustainability in the often wasteful fashion world.
Even for those whose economic state will never afford them a pair of Ferragamo heels, this film won’t disappoint. In many ways, it is as much about Italian culture and the American dream as it is about fabulous footwear.