Is Monica Bellucci the next Sophia Loren? The Italian actress, starring in a score of edgy new films (''Irreversible,'' ''Tears of the Sun,'' ''The Matrix'' sequels), gets even hotter Stateside

By Benjamin Svetkey
March 14, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Monica Belluci Photograph by Robert Maxwell

When Monica Bellucci has a rough day, she really has a rough day. Take March 7. On that date, the 34-year-old Italian actress will be chased by ruthless Nigerian rebels on one part of the globe and brutalized by a demented Frenchman on another. ”Yeah, a lot is happening,” she says, calmly pouring herself a cup of green tea in a Beverly Hills hotel bar. ”I think I will go on vacation that day. I think that would be best, yes?”

Actually, Bellucci may want to stick around for a while. One of her two films opening that Friday will feature her first lead role in a big-budget Hollywood movie: In ”Tears of the Sun,” director Antoine Fuqua’s follow-up to ”Training Day,” she’ll play a volunteer physician in Africa who gets caught in the crosshairs of civil war and rescued by Bruce Willis. The other movie, an unrated French import called ”Irréversible,” nearly caused a riot last May when its unblinking nine-minute rape sequence had its first showing in Cannes and has since sharply divided critics.

”I have a funny career,” she says, her thickly accented English as charmingly bumpy as a Vespa ride through Via Veneto. ”It doesn’t go in a straight line. It’s all over. I work by instinct. I didn’t make an American movie just because it’s American. I did it because to me it was an interesting movie. ‘Irréversible’ is the same. People love it or hate it but they are never indifferent. It’s not ‘Cinderella.’ It’s not a beautiful movie. But it is interesting. Amazingly interesting.”

Bellucci’s appearances later this year in ”The Matrix Reloaded” and ”The Matrix Revolutions” are bound to be pretty interesting as well. ”She’s sensual, dangerous, and mysterious” is all the actress will say about her character, Persephone, in the supersecret sequels. She’ll say more — sort of — about her role as Mary Magdalene in ”The Passion,” the upcoming biblical epic directed by Mel Gibson, which depicts the final hours in the life of Christ and will feature dialogue spoken only in Latin and Aramaic (no subtitles allowed). ”Baram whoming aleel acha fastoo denashca veem coobershlem,” Bellucci offers as a sample line. ”The concept of the film,” she says, switching tongues, ”is to be like a silent movie. The images are so strong and beautiful, you won’t need to understand the words.”

Overseas, Bellucci has been something of a sensation for years, especially in France, where the raven-haired ex-model and her husband, actor Vincent Cassel (who costars as her boyfriend in ”Irréversible” and has appeared in seven other movies with her), are the nation’s couple phare of cinema. And she hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed on these shores: Her performances in the 2000 Italian coming-of-age drama ”Malena” and the 2002 French bodice-ripping kung fu/ werewolf flick ”Brotherhood of the Wolf” caught the eye of more than a few high-powered Hollywood types. Like Fuqua, who put her in ”Tears of the Sun” despite his original plans to cast someone like Michelle Pfeiffer. ”Or Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie,” he says. ”But then I met Monica and I thought, ‘Man! She is such a woman! She’s the one! She’s another Sophia Loren.”’