The Italian nights are getting cooler as fall approaches, and there’s something autumnal about many of the movies at the Venice Film Festival this year.
The passage of time and the approach of death are on the minds of many filmmakers — including Italy’s Paolo Virzi, whose drama “The Leisure Seeker” premiered at the festival on Sunday.
It stars Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as a couple facing up to the end of their lives and embarking on one last trip across the U.S. in their battered old mobile home.
The 11-day Venice festival, which runs to Saturday, has already included Jane Fonda and Robert Redford trying to avoid a lonely old age in “Our Souls at Night.” Still to come is Michael Caine reflecting on his 1960s heyday in the documentary “My Generation.”
The title of “The Leisure Seeker” refers to a 1970s Winnebago used on family holidays by John and Ella Spencer (Sutherland and Mirren). John, a former English teacher, has dementia. Ella is completely lucid but getting physically frailer by the day.
The couple hit the road one last time, setting out on a pilgrimage of sorts to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West house. Like a pair of elderly Huckleberry Finns, they light out for freedom, in what Virzi called “a rebellion against a destiny of hospitalization.”
Mirren said she welcomed the chance the movie offered to look at questions of life and death.
The 72-year-old said the film was “a reflection of the way I hope to live my life.”
“I loved the character of Ella because she is facing the end of her life, but she is facing the end of her life full of energy and commitment to life and pleasure in life that I hope that I can maintain to the end of my days,” Mirren told reporters on Sunday.
This is the first U.S.-set film by acclaimed Italian director Virzi (“Like Crazy,” ”Human Capital”). Virzi said he was reluctant to make it, wary of what can go wrong when filmmakers venture outside of their cultural comfort zones.
He told himself he’d make the movie only if he could get Sutherland and Mirren — and to his shock, they both agreed.
“At this point I said to myself, I can’t avoid doing it,” he said.
Both Sutherland and Mirren are aficionados of Italian cinema and Italian directors. He has starred in Italian films including Federico Fellini’s “Casanova,” while she made “Caligula” for Tinto Brass.
Mirren said she thought Virzi brought a perceptive outsider’s eye to an American story.
“An Italian in America looking at the American culture, American way of life, American landscape — they have an eye which is fresh and individual and uninfluenced by politics or culture of history of family or anything,” she said. “And I think that’s a very powerful eye.
Mirren said Virzi’s view of America was “generous. Not critical in a crass way, because Paolo’s eye is ultimately a loving eye.”
Donald Trump has sometimes felt like a presiding spirit at this year’s Venice festival, because so many of the films deal with social divisions that have been heightened during his campaign and presidency. A notable example was George Clooney’s satirical thriller about racial conflict, “Suburbicon,” which premiered Saturday.
“The Leisure Seeker” was shot in the U.S. in 2016 and features a Trump rally that the crew came across while filming.
It was incorporated into the movie — although, said 82-year-old Sutherland, “we never for a moment dreamt (Trump) was going to be the current president of the United States.”
American writer Stephen Amidon, who worked with Virzi on the script, said he and the film’s American producer initially resisted the director’s desire to include the Trump phenomenon in the movie.
“We thought this Trump thing was a passing phenomenon that was just this blip, this parenthesis in American culture,” he said. “And lo and behold, Paolo was right.”