Monica Belluci: The Full Monica

Although she has been a household name in Europe for years, Monica Bellucci is still a well-kept secret to most Americans. But the Italian idol should have global stardom in her sights with key roles in the French-made action-thriller Brotherhood of the Wolf and the secrecy-shrouded sequels The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.


With several films starting to hit these shores, supernaturally sultry Italian actress Monica Bellucci is officially expanding her European star status to the States.

She just had a bit of trouble getting here in the flesh.

La bella Monica--as one of many worshipful websites calls her--was on the verge of a thirty-third birthday, enjoying a warm reception at the Toronto Film Festival with her husband and Brotherhood of the Wolf costar, French actor Vincent Cassel (Hate, Elizabeth), when the September 11th terrorist attacks put the brakes on a planned promotional stop in New York.

Not that Brotherhood is hard up for buzz. As Le Pacte Des Loups, the genre-defying epic was a colossal hit in France, and its emphasis on action makes it a most promising export. Call it highbrow pulp, a period piece as popcorn entertainment. And--_sacre bleu!_--it delivers. Bellucci plays Sylvia, a powerful seductress in a rural region of 18th-century Southern France besieged by a mysterious, murderous beast. In casting Bellucci, director Christophe Gans found himself drawn to "the intelligence and complexity that exists behind the facade, behind the magnificent beauty she possesses." Indeed, screen presence cannot be taught--and who knows where it comes from?--but Bellucci definitely commands a rare strain.

Also taken with her have been the Matrix-making brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski. She's wrapping their highly anticipated sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions--projects, at least in rabid fanboy circles, more speculated about and closely guarded than Osama bin Laden whereabouts last fall. Indeed, the silence from the Australian set is deafening.

Calling from Down Under, Bellucci dutifully resists even the most general questions rampantly attractive count overcomes prison guards and leaps off a moving train to fulfill a promise to his lover, who awaits his return in a desert cave after being badly injured during a suicidal plane crash with her husband. Fiennes finds her, too late as it turns out, and, weeping, swoops her into his arms before flying her in his plane over what is arguably the most heartbreakingly beautiful and erotic desert landscape ever filmed. about her role. "I'm sorry," she says. "You know, it's a very hush-hush project so they're very secretive about it, and I respect that."

Right. Doing a lot of stunt work?

She pauses. (Oh, come on--how confidential can that be?)

"I can't tell you anything," she sheepishly confesses.

Surely she can tell us something. How's the catering?

A moment of silence ensues.

"Good," she offers hesitantly.

At last, a scoop!

Bellucci grew up in the small, ancient town of Citta di Castello, idolizing Italian cinema icons like Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Anna Magnani. "Those actresses, they came on-screen as such strong personalities," she says. "At the same time, they were really passionate, really sensual."

Though she currently resides in Paris--where she relocated for film work since "it is very difficult to become international just through Italian films"--her heart will never leave Italy. Without a moment's hesitation, she says the actor she would most love to share a scene with is the late Marcello Mastroianni.

Bellucci was studying law in Milan when a friend urged her to try modeling. Soon steady work--"a lot, a lot, a lot," she says--lured her from the university. Though she landed a small role in Francis Ford Coppola's oversexed Bram Stoker's Dracula (seducing future Matrix costar Keanu Reeves) and later played Gene Hackman's trophy wife in 2000's underwhelming Under Suspicion, it was Miramax's Malena that put Bellucci on the map in America after years of steady work in Italy and France. Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) offered her the role after they worked on a Dolce & Gabbana commercial together. And if Bellucci was seeking validation for more than her appearance, Malena was a perfect opportunity.

As the title character, she played a conspicuously attractive widow in a small-minded Sicilian village circa World War II who becomes not just a prisoner of her beauty, but a casualty. Over the war's difficult days, she is effectively forced to assume compromising identities the villagers project upon her through their lust, envy and resentment. First obscured, then forsaken, her true self is only rescued in the end by a young boy, the film's narrator, who witnesses the injustice. In the most harrowing scene, Malena is severely beaten, sheared and stripped naked by a hateful mob of townswomen. Bellucci's wrenchingly vulnerable performance through those seemingly interminable minutes revealed unforgettable acting courage.

Hollywood certainly took notice. In addition to having landed the Matrix movies, she is about to start filming an as-yet-untitled project with Bruce Willis. She is grateful for the high-profile work, but insists her goal is "to make good movies. Whether the film is American or European doesn't matter to me."

Not that she is taking even a moment for granted. "This business is crazy. You know how it is," she says, sighing. "I know so many people that are so talented that just ... they don't have the chance to do anything. So I am already very lucky to have the chance to work with all these talented people."

As the time comes for her to rejoin the talented people and their good catering on the set of the Matrix sequels, I step way out on a limb and assume there are going to be some guns and explosions in this one. Diving into all that so soon after September 11th must be jarring, no?

"For me, The Matrix is much more than that, actually," she maintains. "In some ways, it is a philosophy of life. There is a message in it, and it's a story about love."

Though Bellucci won't reveal her Matrix character, something tells me she's going to play a beautiful woman.