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Finally, a defining role

Special to The Times

“ACTING is a rejection game,” Valeria Golino says flatly. “The people who hire you can reject you. But sometimes you can reject them too.”

The business of choosing, getting passed over for and turning down film roles currently weighs heavy on her mind. For two decades, Golino, 36, has enjoyed a career of unusual variety, alternating in the past 15 years between Hollywood movies and films in her native Italy.

An indication of the eccentric turns her career has taken? She made her U.S. debut in “Big Top Pee-wee” (1988), playing a circus trapeze artist who becomes romantically attached to Pee-wee Herman. Her second U.S. movie was in total contrast: She played the girlfriend of Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt in “Rain Man.”

Golino has reveled in the wild variety of roles that come her way. She relates with relish that she went straight from Sean Penn’s somber 1991 mood piece, “The Indian Runner,” to Jim Abrahams’ wacky movie-spoof-movie “Hot Shots!” opposite Charlie Sheen. “People said to me, ‘How can you do a drama, then do “Hot Shots!”?’ ” she recalls, rolling her eyes in disgust. “I adore Sean Penn, but I liked the ‘Hot Shots!’ people too. If a movie is what it sets out to be, what’s wrong with that?”

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She has continued to enjoy a busy Hollywood career: Most recently she was seen in Julie Taymor’s film “Frida,” playing Lupe Marin, ex-wife of artist Diego Rivera. But that one great defining role has always eluded her.

Until now, that is. She is the undisputed lead in “Respiro,” an Italian film of great charm and striking visual beauty, written and directed by Emanuele Crialese, which was released by Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S. on Friday.

Golino plays Grazia, an affectionate young mother of three. Free-spirited and rebellious, she swims topless in the sea with them and sings along lustily to pop tunes on the radio. They live with her husband, Pietro, on Lampedusa, a remote island so far off the Sicilian coast that it is nearer to Tunisia than to Italy. It’s a small, impoverished backwater where men fish and their wives work in the sardine-packing plant (a job Grazia makes it clear she hates). The sun always shines, the sea is an exquisite deep blue, and people ride three to a moped and eat meals at long tables in big, sociable, noisy groups. Yet beneath its surface charm, the island is an intolerant place, and gossips start a whispering campaign against Grazia. Is she just eccentric, or unstable and in need of psychiatric treatment?

“This was a wonderful script,” Golino says. “Emanuele wanted me but didn’t know me, so the producer met me and said: ‘Here’s the script. It’s not a lot of money.’ It turns out Emanuele has lived in New York for several years, so he sees Italy fresh. He wanted to evoke something familiar to him that he had left behind. It’s great to have a story that has that distance.

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“I really liked the relationship between Grazia and her three kids. It’s volatile, sensual, with a lot of touching, which I find completely natural in a mother-son relationship.”

“Respiro” is set in a time that could be termed the recent present. It looks vaguely contemporary, although there’s not a cell phone, video game or wide-screen TV in sight.

At the same time, it could almost be set in the 1950s, the heyday of Italian cinema neorealism: Dressed in a cheap-looking cotton print frock, and playing fierce and assertive as well as playful and sensual, Golino recalls such Italian screen stars as Anna Magnani, Silvana Mangano and the young Sophia Loren. She could be a heroine from an old film by Vittorio De Sica or Roberto Rossellini.

It’s no accident, she insists, that Crialese presents her like that on screen.

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“I feel ‘Respiro’ is hyper-realistic,” she says. “Superficially, it looks like a neorealistic film. [Pier Paulo] Pasolini and De Sica, those are Emanuele’s masters. Italian cinema has gone through a bad period.

“Everyone’s been afraid for a long time. Our directors have lacked confidence. Our cinema was so strong in the ‘50s, so they were like sons who suffered from father figures. Now it’s finally time to revisit that era to make it even more vivid.”

But Golino does not claim there is a renaissance in Italian cinema: “Not in a huge, splashy way. The good thing is we have young actors and directors [Crialese is 37], but we lack screenwriters. It’s hard to write about Italy. At the moment, it’s not very inspiring.”

She finds Silvio Berlusconi-led modern Italy materialistic and dull: “It’s such an unpoetic time. We aren’t even having difficulties. It’s a wealthy middle-class time. I think of Italy now, and I think of accessories, possessions, bad TV, fake boobs, BMWs.”

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She mulls this over in a hotel suite during a brief visit to Britain. In person, Golino is a formidable presence, with a mane of wavy reddish-brown hair. Tall and slim, she often gesticulates to make a point and fixes a listener with an intense gaze from her cobalt blue eyes. She is suffering from a cold but shrugs it off dismissively: “I can think,” she says. “I can talk.”

And talk she does, with the carpe diem attitude of one who knows Grazia is the role of her career. Released last year in Italy, “Respiro” did substantial business. It also became a top 10 hit in France on its opening in January. It was then re-released in Italy and has been on the box office charts for a total of 45 weeks.

American sojourn

Ironically, Golino is on a real roll now that she has left Los Angeles, after dividing her time between Hollywood and Rome for 12 years. “I go back to L.A. for two months in a year,” she says. “I have real friends there, and I stay with them now.

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“I had a house on Mulholland Drive for eight years. The Hollywood dream wasn’t mine as much as the people who represented me. They wanted me to behave like a movie star. I was working to keep up a certain amount of luxury, which wasn’t why I went to America. I didn’t want to be a movie star. I just respected certain American filmmakers.”

She worked with good ones: Penn, Quentin Tarantino (“Four Rooms”), Mike Figgis (“Leaving Las Vegas”), John Frankenheimer (“Year of the Gun”), Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”).

“I had hoped to work with people like that, not be a movie star. There was this dichotomy between what I wanted and what was happening. Finally, I sold my house. I didn’t want any more managers, business managers, publicists. At a certain point I said, ‘Enough.’ Not because individually they weren’t nice people. It was just I felt I was supporting them all."Since then she has appeared in “Frida” and Rodrigo Garcia’s “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her.”

“I’m proud of that work,” she says. “I work less, but as I don’t live in L.A. and spend $20,000 a month, I can take little [films] I think are good. And I don’t have to play an exotic Italian spy!”

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Nor, to her relief, does she have to compete for glamour roles: “It’s easier when you’re younger to get parts that if I would get now I would do better. I know I’m better looking now than I was but ....” She shrugs. “You know how it is with youth in cinema.

“Still, there are so many pretty girls, young girls; they’ll be using them for that kind of thing.” She throws back her head and laughs. “Thank God for that!”


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