The Navy Seals' mission is simple, if next to impossible: rescue an Italian doctor from a Roman Catholic outpost in the besieged jungle of Nigeria. Just the doctor, none of the African patients. But even a tough guy like Lieut. A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis) can't resist a plea to take the wounded on a perilous trek--because the doctor is idealistic, the doctor is passionate, and the doctor is played by Monica Bellucci.
Granted, the plot of Tears of the Sun requires that Willis' military mission become a humanitarian one. But Bellucci, 34, tends to have a mesmerizing effect on men, onscreen and off. Despite herself, she's a sublime succubus: Monica demonica. With her voluptuous figure, majestically sullen face and exquisite eyelashes, she projects a quality sadly absent in most Hollywood star-babes: a knowing, passionate womanhood. That could be why in so many of her European films she plays the sort of woman who brings out the obsessive in men just by walking past them.
One glance at her in Malena (a darker, hornier Summer of '42), and an Italian kid skyrockets into puberty. One glimpse of her legs as she scampers out of sight, and the hero of the superb French thriller The Apartment jettisons his fiance and a good job to stalk her. Vincent Cassel, the star of The Apartment, must have felt similar stirrings. He has appeared in six more films with Bellucci. And in 1999 he married her.
Monica mania is no longer a secret hoarded by European cinephiles. In this year's avidly awaited sequels to The Matrix, she plays Persephone, Queen of the Virtual World. She will be Mary Magdalene in Mel Gibson's Jesus film, The Passion. But why wait? Tears, a smart, sturdy war film with a lot of heart and a little cleavage, opens this week. And in the art houses there's more, much more of Bellucci in Gaspar Noe's defiantly lurid Irreversible, in which, for nine minutes, her character endures the most brutal rape scene in movie history.
Doctor, biblical strumpet, cyberroyalty, rape victim--she plays them all, with ferocious conviction. "It's important for me to find different things and prove I can do them," she says. "Someone told me that inside all actors are many sleeping princesses, and each time we do a role, one of those princesses wakes up. Inside us there is everything. We just have to look for it."
Born in Umbria, Bellucci began modeling to support her law studies at the University of Perugia. Her work as a model got her a small, revealing role as a vampire bride opposite Keanu Reeves (her Matrix co-star) in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. Soon the actress-model was a model actress in French and Italian films and one American suspense drama, Under Suspicion, as Gene Hackman's wife.
Serious actress, sex goddess. Movies haven't seen that combo since the era of Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale, when European stars commuted between homegrown and Hollywood films. A later generation had less luck: Isabelle Huppert's first big U.S. film was Heaven's Gate, and Isabelle Adjani's was Ishtar--two signal flops of the '80s. Penelope Cruz has yet to look comfortable in a U.S. film. Bellucci knows the odds, and she has the ambition. "It's so difficult for a European actress to have the chance to work internationally," she says. "But if you want to make it as an international actress, you have to work in America."