On the verge

Special to The Times

One scene of "Tears of the Sun" calls for Monica Bellucci to furiously slap Bruce Willis and spit in his face. The Italian actress was apprehensive, but Willis encouraged her to go for it.

"Maybe many women would love to have this honor and I'm the one," Bellucci says, smiling. "I came up with my Italian passion and I did my work." Willis quips, "I get the feeling that she might have slapped somebody before. I don't know." She counters that after a few takes, "he liked it."

Until now, Bellucci, 34, a former model, may be known more in this country for her beauty (she once appeared on the cover of Esquire clad only in caviar) than for her film roles, although some may recognize her as the tragic war bride and title character of Giuseppe Tornatore's "Malena." But with two provocative films that opened Friday -- the military rescue tale "Tears of the Sun" and the controversial French rape-and-revenge drama "Irreversible" -- moviegoers will see her talent, intensity and fearlessness as well.

Bellucci's string of recent roles also includes parts in the two upcoming "Matrix" sequels and the role of Mary Magdalene in director Mel Gibson's upcoming film about Jesus Christ, "The Passion."

"I think it's a good time for her," Willis says. "She's going to be a big star." He suggested Bellucci to face off against him in "Tears of the Sun," in which she plays a missionary doctor whom Navy SEAL Willis and his squadron are sent in to rescue from war-torn Nigeria. Her character refuses to leave without also leading her tiny village's group of refugees to safety.

"I think Monica is a real woman," says the film's director, Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day"). "I needed somebody that had the strength and the passion that you would believe would sacrifice herself for others."

"She's even more intelligent than she is pretty," says "Irreversible" director Gaspar Noe. "She's very independent.... She doesn't care about what other people think." "Irreversible" is so raw and startling that Bellucci has implored her mother not to see it. Unfolding in reverse, the film rewinds from a brutal act of vengeance to a lengthy, intimate bedroom-and-shower scene from earlier that day between a nude Bellucci and her real-life husband, Vincent Cassel ("Read My Lips," "Birthday Girl"), who plays her boyfriend. In the film's graphic centerpiece, Bellucci's character is violently raped and beaten by a stranger in a scene that lasts about 11 minutes.

Outrage greeted the film's premiere last year at Cannes, with some in the media denouncing the film as pornographic, and audience members at several festival screenings reportedly walked out or even fainted.

Bellucci is accustomed to defending the film, and she does, passionately and at length, over tea at a Beverly Hills hotel. "The film is like life. There are moments of beauty, moments of joy, and there are moments of pain," she says. "When you see the rape scene, it's horrible to watch because it's filmed in such a realistic way that it's unbearable." As is the scene in which Cassel's character and the couple's mutual friend, played by Albert Dupontel, hunt down and punish the man they think is the rapist.

Noe "does difficult movies, so of course I knew that I wasn't doing 'Peter Pan,' " says Bellucci. But "when you come out of one of his movies, maybe you hate it, maybe you love it, but you can't be indifferent."

Bellucci grew up in a village in central Italy. While studying law at a local university, she began modeling and eventually left school to model full time.

After seeing her photos, Francis Ford Coppola cast her as one of the vampire brides in 1992's "Bram Stoker's Dracula." "It was just a tiny little moment in the film," she says, "but for me it was the beginning of something, and I knew that what I wanted to do was act. So I went back to Europe, I started acting school and I worked hard."

She moved to Paris, where she started landing roles in French films, including 1996's "L'Appartement," on which she met Cassel. The couple, who were married in 1999, often work together (they appeared in last year's "Brotherhood of the Wolf").

Willis suggested Bellucci to Fuqua for "Tears of the Sun" after seeing "Malena" and "Under Suspicion," Bellucci's first English-language film. She was attracted to the script's humanitarian subject matter and the chance to play a courageous female character in an action film.

Scenes were shot of a developing romance between Bellucci's and Willis' characters, but most of those moments were ultimately cut, including a kiss.

"You can see the tension between them, but it's beautiful they don't have a love story because it [shows that] what happens around us is more important than ourselves," Bellucci says.

The five-month shoot in remote jungle locations in Hawaii was difficult for Bellucci, but Fuqua says she took it in stride. "She had bruises and mosquito bites and [was] walking around in mud up to her knees and honestly, I can say to you, Monica did not complain. I think that part of her personality is to tough it through, and she did."

Bellucci is so in demand that when rainstorms and accessibility issues caused the "Tears of the Sun" shoot to run over schedule by a month, she had to drop out of the role of Mina Harker in this summer's comic book adaptation "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." (Peta Wilson stepped in.)

That setback didn't slow Bellucci down. She is shooting "Secret Agents," a French spy thriller, opposite Cassel, and her film "Remember Me," an Italian domestic drama from "The Last Kiss" director Gabriele Muccino, recently topped the box office in Italy. Miramax has picked up U.S. distribution rights to the comedy "Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra," in which she plays the queen, a hit in France last year. Bellucci also will continue appearing in ad campaigns for Dolce & Gabbana.

When asked about "The Matrix Reloaded," opening this May, in which she plays a mysterious character named Persephone who tries to seduce Neo (Keanu Reeves), she smiles cryptically and, for the first time in the conversation, a rapid response is not forthcoming. She discloses that she has two scenes, and although she didn't do any of the choreographed wire work, she says, "I have another way to fight in the movie."

For now, "Irreversible" is getting most of the attention. Bellucci says that at a recent press junket for "Tears of the Sun," all journalists wanted to talk about was "Irreversible" -- "even people that didn't like the movie hated it," she says, amazed. "People are so curious about it."

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