At the Venice Film Festival last year, when the lido should have been buzzing about Keira Knightley’s tiny derrière being whipped in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, it was Monica Bellucci who caused a stir. Her recent turn in Philippe Garrel’s Un Été Brûlant opens with the actress seductively lounging naked across a rumpled bed – shot just two months after she gave birth to her second child and, at 47, still looking every inch the Italian goddess. On set, as the camera rolled, she vamped it up as a sensuous, needy movie star, while between takes she reverted to doting mother, breastfeeding and somehow surviving on two hours’ sleep.
That combination of sex symbol, international diva and earth mother has long crowned her “La Bellucci”, a female force of nature. Venus runs through her veins, as one awestruck journalist put it. There is a memorable scene in Malena by Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore, when the camera trails Bellucci as she walks – pitch-black hair, tight-fitting skirt, stockings and heels – through a sun-drenched Sicilian piazza. A shiver of electricity crackles through the crowd. Elderly gentlemen lift arthritic hands to their hats, young men gape and pubescent teenagers fall off their bicycles. It’s fictional and theatrical, but perhaps not so far from the truth of Bellucci’s experience; she bewitches the male species. Repeatedly topping “sexiest female” lists the world over, in interviews, she has become adept at patiently guiding effluent journalists through the inevitable queries about her lottery-win combination of Italian genes, before she can get down to the details of her passion for cinema. “Beauty is boring without brains”, she insists, and debunking the myth that models can’t act, she has carved out a critically-acclaimed career combining intelligent, arthouse European fare with Hollywood blockbusters – including the second and third in the Matrix franchise – and American indies with the likes of Spike Lee and Terry Gilliam. She has stepped into the skins of nuns and prostitutes, brides of Dracula and 500-year-old witches, as well as being muse to some of the world’s most legendary photographers from Helmut Newton to Richard Avedon.
Today, ensconced in an airy studio in north London, Bellucci is elegant in black trousers and tailored jacket, after playing the role of the goddess for The Hunger’s shoot. “I like to be a muse, to play in front of the camera,” she says. “Your body becomes an object that you work with. I was so honoured today; it’s exciting to work with talented people. I feel alive, the way they look at me. It’s interesting to see yourself through somebody else’s eyes.” To many, Bellucci seems to have walked straight out of Fellini’s Rome: her classic Italian beauty conjures al fresco espressos, oversized sunglasses and scooters circling the Piazza del Popolo.
“Beauty is boring without brains.”
Terry Gilliam, who cast her as an evil queen in The Brothers Grimm, summed up her eerie mix of old-style glamour and Italian country-girl roots: “She reminds me of the divas, like Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Claudia Cardinale,” he said. “Italians create these women. I don’t know how they produce them, but they do. And they all seem to be incredibly smart, sensuous and, strangely, still keep their feet on the ground.” Bellucci’s eyes widen in modest disbelief at the comparison: “I do movies because I was inspired by those incredible actresses,”she laughs, “and incredible directors – Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica.”
Bellucci was born in the Umbrian town of Cittá di Castello, nestled on a slope of the Apennines. A provincial place of hazy days and mellow twilights, it was the kind of town that an only child with dreams of Paris and the silver screen escapes early, if they’re serious about pursuing their ambitions. The only other world-famous inhabitant bar Bellucci was a Pope who died in 1144. The actress’s red-blooded femininity seems to run in her family’s DNA; she tells stories of her grandmother Ada, still beautiful aged 80, attending Mass with fiery lipstick and manicured nails. A shy child, Bellucci had a loving upbringing, but harboured dreams of adventure. “I felt so protected because it’s so small and, at the same time, maybe suffocated,” she says. “Perhaps that’s why I wanted to travel the world.” Determined to win financial independence in a country where women still struggle with its macho culture, she began studying law at the University of Perugia. But when a friend took her around Milan’s modelling agencies, she was signed on the spot. At 19, she left home, “I always loved acting, but I come from a small place in Italy and the reality of movies was something so far away from my reality. I didn’t know how to get into it. So I chose modelling.”
In Milan, she met Dolce & Gabbana, who gave Bellucci her first runway show. Modelling became Bellucci’s passport to the world. “But after three years I got bored,” she shrugs. Rescue came in the shape of Francis Ford Coppola, who glimpsed her in a magazine and cast her as one of Dracula’s topless brides in his 1992 remake of Bram Stoker’s novel. “I did one little part with Francis Ford Coppola, just a tiny moment, but for me, it was so important,” she remembers. “Through that I decided to become an actor.”
Read more of our exclusive interview in Issue Two of The Hunger, on sale now.