by Bryan Appleyard
The Sunday Times, 15th February 2004
“They look at me and they think, ‘Ha! Another model wants to become an actress.’ The problem is they can forgive your talent, they can forgive your intelligence but they don’t forgive beauty. I’m sorry it’s true. If you’re pretty you have to be stupid.”
Monica Bellucci says this angrily but quietly. She’s leaning forward as if not wishing to be overheard in the rather discreet bar of the Hotel de Russie in Rome. I’m leaning forward too. It’s not that I can’t hear her, it’s just that, right now, I really like leaning forward.
“By keeping working today, I feel like I am growing up. I’m growing older and, in future, I’ll be better. Because then beauty won’t be the centre of everything.”
You see, personally, leaning forward as I am, I forgive Monica her beauty totally, 100 per cent, no questions asked. No blame should attach to this lady. Not guilty, your honour. You may drag me kicking and screaming from the courtroom but, as far as I am concerned, she did absolutely nothing wrong when she became beautiful.
“But beauty helped me of course…”
This woman has every right to look like a distillation of every Italian perfection – utterly black hair, huge flawless lips, a slim but, as she puts it, “shapey” body, the swan neck and that infinitely graceful jaw line that runs so sweetly up to those long, noble, almost Spock like ears. I could also tell you about her eyes, her skin, the way she brushes the cappuccino foam from her lips with the long, unpainted nails of her perfect fingers. But life is short and you probably get the picture.
“For me being an actor is such a crazy thing, the only thing that makes work interesting is to have an ethic.”
Her beauty is so perfect, so of Italy, that, at first here in Rome, you don’t notice it. Admittedly, today she is dressed down as she is visiting her father, Pasquale, who is ill in a Roman hospital. She wears a long, black coat – Dolce & Gabbana – a black shirt and black trousers. Her hair is tied back. Chic girl, pretty… No, hang on a minute.
“To do what I feel, I need to follow my passion, my instinct…”
As she walks in the bar, a couple of men do very slow double takes. First, the routine glance registering a good-looking woman has walked in, then a pause as the details fall into place, a further pause to consider the possibility that they are hallucinating and then the second, now furtive, glance that establishes beyond doubt that the Goddess of Italy is a few feet away drinking decaf cappuccino. And who does that English creep think he is anyway, leaning forward like that?
Sorry to dwell on this, but there is a serious point. For it is not just that Bellucci is beautiful, it is the way she is beautiful.She is the heiress of a tradition that includes women like Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale, Monica Vitti, Anna Magnani, the muses of the great postwar Italian cinema created by Rossellini, Fellini, Antonioni, da Sica, Visconti, Pasolini. “Those women,” she says, “gave me emotions.” Those women were also “shapey”, real and they looked like Italy, dark yet sunlit, young yet old. Above all, they were Women with a capital ‘W’ and movies need Women.
Monica is fond of a quote from Richard Burton – “An actress is a little more than a woman; an actor is a little less than a man.”
“Oh yes,” she says, “I think it is very feminine work. For a woman to be an actress is something normal, we are natural actresses. But a man has to come out with something feminine, they become very vulnerable. You can see it many times - men are the real actresses.”
But these great actresses were also directed by men of genius. Unfortunately that postwar flow of genius suddenly dried up.The Italian movie industry collapsed to be replaced by some of the worst TV in the developed world and 35 years ago – at least 25 years too late - Monica was born in Citta di Castello on the Umbrian border with Tuscany.
“In life,” she says, “you have to be lucky. You can work, you can do things, but you need opportunity to come to you. If you’re not lucky, even if you work hard nothing is going to happen. I know how difficult it is for an Italian actor to have an international career, it’s very difficult. Can you imagine when Sophia Loren or Anna Magnani went to America? They were already big stars because of Italian movies. Italian movies were famous all over the world.”
She speaks English better than the English – ie with an Italian accent and Italian grammar. This does, however, cause me one highly specific problem. She pronounces “live” as “leeeeeeeve” and, as she says passionately and frequently, “I want to live!”, I keep thinking she wants to terminate the interview.
Back to business. Her career has involved an escape from the cinematic desert of contemporary Italy. It is an escape that has, only now, fully paid off. She was so easily the best thing – lookswise and actingwise - in the dismal Matrix sequels that the young audience suddenly became Bellucci aware. After Matrix Reloaded I was told repeatedly by under-25-year-old girls, who wanted to look like her, and boys, who would have died for her, that she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Really?” she says, when I tell her this, “I did not know this had happened in England…”
In any other actress this would sound fake, the kind of false modesty that comes out of PR briefings. But it is genuine. She seems unbriefed and her mind is on her father. No PR would tell her to appear puzzled that I’ve flown from London to see her. And certainly no PR would tell her to admit that she’s not even sure which film she is supposed to be publicising. She has made several in the past year. I explain it is Mel Gibson’s Passion in which she plays Mary Magdalene.
“So why you not interview Mel Gibson?”
“Because,” I repeat, “in Britain you’re very hot.”
And, I do not add, I wouldn’t like leaning forward with Mel.
In Citta di Castello, she was the only child of Pasquale, the owner of a trucking company, and Brunella, an amateur painter.
“Everybody gets so worried about you when you are an only child. Why? It’s not a big problem. You get used to growing up by yourself. You can be lonely. You don’t have a problem with that, so many people have problems with it….Being an only child, it’s not a big deal. Spoilt? I suppose so, they gave me so much love and so much freedom. But, after 20, they didn’t care any more, I became like a free bird, when you grow up, you grow up……”
Monica, you will gather, even talks like those great actresses who preceded her – the pride, the big sense of self-worth, the grandiloquent but homespun philosophy, that fifties, existential sense of “life” as a subject about which it was still possible to generalise. Fellini should be filming her walking down a dusty road in a cheap dress and high heels.
Above all, there is the tragic sense. That, in particular, is strong in Monica today. She had been visiting her father the day before – he had been very ill but a big operation had been successful - and the staff at the hospital had asked her to visit some children who had heard she was in the hospital. They were teenagers with cancer.
“I bought presents and stuff, I went to the first room and then the second room and then the third room and I thought, ‘Okay, I am going to cry.” But that’s no use. I was there for three hours. Some of them were so strong and they were laughing and talking. You have so much to learn from them.
“I think life is very difficult and I’m one of the most spoiled people on the planet and life has, for me, been very easy up to now. But even so I know that life is difficult and to be strong is the only way to keep going with life because, if you are not strong, life will destroy you.”
See what I mean? This woman is the Italian movie industry as it used to be.
Anyway, there were cousins in Citta di Castello, an extended family to look after the goddess that was blooming in their midst.
“They were like brothers to me. Any problems and we could talk.”
She was bright. She went to the best school, the Lyceo Classico, and went on to study law.
“I should have studied something like literature because law wasn’t my kind of thing. I just thought with law I could become so many things, it could be a base for so many things. It’s incredible, sometimes you decide something and something else comes up and this is what happened to me. Because, you know, life is stronger than you.”
There she goes again – life, strength. What happened to her was that a friend suggested she join her in Milan and become a model.
“I wanted to stay at university and finish study and maybe do a little modelling in the town of Perugia for a little cash, money, you know. But my mother she said, ‘Monica, Monica, don’t tell me you want to do the same kind of life as your friends because you are different.’ She had a simple life, she married my father and her life is the life of a couple. Maybe she saw in me the possibility… like a vengeance for her own life.”
For some reason, whenever her family addresses her, they always say her name twice. Her mother seemed to have changed her tune when she finally departed the family home.
“When I left my mother was crying. I say ‘What you cry for? I’ll come back. Nothing’s going to happen.’ My mother say, ‘Monica, Monica, I know you’re never going to come back.’ And she was right, I never came back.”
So, in 1990, she want to Milan and ran straight into a pair of young designers called Dolce and Gabbana. She became part of new wave Milanese style. She still works for D & G. At Rome airport there was barely a single sightline that didn’t end on her face, looking weepy and Sicilian to advertise their new perfume, Sicily.
Within a year of arriving in Milan, her life was, as she puts it, “crazy.” She was travelling all over the world on photo-shoots. The best, Richard Avedon included, queued to snap her. Success surprised her. She had assumed that all models had to have slim, linear figures. Mostly, I point out, because almost all fashion designers are gay.
“Yeah, you’re right.”
She is, in any case, famously averse to slimming or even exercise. She doesn’t like shopping either – these days the designers send her all their clothes anyway. But it’s diets that she thinks are really stupid.
“For a character, of course, I can become fat or skinny. I eat what I like. There is something lazy about me. I am much too lazy to go to the gym. I like to swim – when I have time I swim. But I am not obsessed with anything.”
Never mind, in the early nineties shapey Monica suited the mood of the time and she loved it.
“I was crazy about it. When you come from a little Italian city like that and you have that chance to go to Paris and New York and Los Angeles and Hawaii and Mexico………”
Life, however, is, as she keeps saying, strong. Francis Ford Coppola saw a picture of her and gave her a small, non-speaking part in Dracula. The effect on Monica was alarming.
“It was….” her voice drops to a whisper, she leans forward, I lean forward, “horrible. It was horrible because, after that, I knew I couldn’t go back to modelling and it was so difficult to become an actress. Just the taste of it… Oh my God! It’s horrible! I felt like a cow that is full of milk and nobody will take it. I felt I don’t want to do this shit any more, I want to do films. But, of course, I did Dracula because I was pretty not because I was the best actress in the world. You have to work on it.”
And so she worked, taking acting lessons and doing “two or three things in Italy that didn’t go anywhere.” Finally, she appeared in the French hit L’Appartement and she was an international star. On that film she also met Vincent Cassel. They married in 1999. The relationship started badly. Cassel objected to the casting of an Italian model when there were so many great French actresses and Monica thought, “Who does he think he is? So sure of himself. But there was an attraction there….”
They became the great couple of European cinema, sort of upmarket Zeta Jones and Douglas. She says they were like Tom and Jerry, but the films weren’t exactly kid’s stuff. There was the extremely violent Doberman and then Irreversible with a rape scene so long and graphic that even hardened Cannes audiences walked out. Mind you, a year later she was Master of Ceremonies at the Cannes Festival.
“I knew the film would be strong. I think it’s an important movie that’s difficult to watch. But there is a meaning like A Clockwork Orange or Deliverance or Salo. They are difficult movies but there is something inside.”
Of course, she was still a European actress and that is what she remains, in spite of a number of transatlantic movies. She’s done Tears of the Sun with Bruce Willis, The Matrix and last year she did The Brothers Grimm with Terry Gilliam and She Hate Me with Spike Lee.
“That’s like black speak – they don’t use the ‘s’ in the third person,” she explains with charming pedantry, “I play a lipstick lesbian – lipstick because she’s very chic and very feminine. My nickname is Mafia and my father is a big mob guy. And I’m a lesbian and I’m going to get pregnant with a black guy and my father is going to get mad……”
I think she liked doing that movie.
But the point is that she remains European because she really doesn’t get on with America.
“If I am in New York, I love it – that great energy. But in the quality of life in America there is something missing. There is so much attention to money and success. People are like drug addicts. They don’t have life. People just work, work, work. You say you go on vacation for a month, people look at you like you are crazy. They don’t take time for themselves.
“Also I feel there is this Calvinist work ethic. There is no forgiveness. If you are wrong, you pay. They have the death penalty. They have a respect for people just because they have money and success. In Europe maybe there is something ethical. You must respect a human being just because he is a human being.”
Again she doesn’t seem to be pursuing the right PR line. The Americans can get tetchy about this kind of thing. She admits some of her career choices have been the despair of her agent. She really does seem to find the whole Hollywood/American thing too oppressive to submit to its demands. But isn’t she a star now herself? She leans forward. I lean forward.
“I’m just an actress,” she whispers, “I’m not a movie star. Nobody is a star, we’re all human. The most famous people I’ve met are the most scared. They’re scared of losing their power, they’re so scared they create their own prison. It’s horrible. Movie stars make me laugh. I know so many stars I can tell you there are no stars, just people.”
She makes a distinction between real actors and stars. She worked, for example, with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman in a small movie called Under Suspicion.
“I was in front of two icons and they were just so normal. They were just so strong, great actors. What I loved about those guys is they were real actors, not two bullshit stars. I’d like to work with Adrian Brody, he’s so beautiful and strong and special.”
There is one big actor she definitely doesn’t fancy working with, but she swore me to secrecy and she did it while we were leaning forward so that’s that..
She turned down a big Hollywood film to work on Mel Gibson’s Passion. It is about the last 12 hours of Christ’s life. Everything about this film is, as Monica would say, “strong” and “difficult”. The dialogue is entirely in Aramaic and Latin and, when we met, it was unclear whether it would have sub-titles. “Sometimes I hear yes,” says Monica, “sometimes I hear no.” Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic and rejects most modern developments in the Church. During both writing and shooting, the film has been repeatedly and virulently attacked as anti-semitic. Gibson denies the charge. But he was not helped by a New York Times article that included a remark by his father suggesting that the figure of 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust may have been an exaggeration.
NYT columnist Frank Rich then said Gibson’s father was a “Holocaust denier” to which Gibson replied: “I want to kill him (Rich). I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog.” He may be a Catholic but he’s still a Mad Max.
As if that weren’t enough, Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus, has been struck twice by lightning during filming. This may not be what it seems, however, as the Pope, having seen the movie, has said, “It is as it was.”
Hearing of the film, Monica says she immediately realised she wanted to play Mary Magdalene – “It just came into my head.” She called her agent and said she wanted to meet Mel Gibson.
“I wanted to work with him. I respect him as an actor. I respect him as a director. I loved Braveheart. Also I was in love with the project. I mean I like to work with people who have something to say. I believed from the beginning that this project would be something very strong because it touches religion and that’s always a very strong subject with people. There’s something almost irrational about it.”
She is not religious herself, though brought up a Catholic. She dismisses all the charges of anti-semitism, pointing out that Mary in the film is played by a Jew.
“She wasn’t against the movie and she was shooting the movie.”
Passion is not a big film – it cost a mere £16 million to make – and it’s unlikely to be blockbuster. “Maybe it will be a film you and I and nobody else sees,” she shrugs. But it’s consistent with Monica’s taste for edgy projects to run alongside her mainstream work. “I’m always dirty in movies,” she has said. It is a project that Gibson himself might not survive entirely intact. But Monica will.
Now she wants time off with her husband. They seldom see each other – though she absolutely denies rumours of a split. She has been thinking about children, but not, it seems, very intently. Her one immediate project is to get time off.
“I want to leeeeve! My last ten years were working, working, working. It was great – many experiences, many people. But now I want to be very selective about what I do. Making movies takes a lot of energy and you give a lot of yourself. You have to believe about what you do. I didn’t know I was able to become an actress and I don’t know what I will do next. Maybe I do something different. Or maybe I become an old actress. Maybe I do theatre if I find the right people, the right director, the right piece. Wherever. I’m open to everything, I want to leeeeeeeeeeeve!”
Her mobile has been ringing. It is her mother – “Monica, Monica….” She is on the way to pick her up to go to the hospital. It is time to lean back.