Monica Bellucci

Hometown: Perugia, Umbria, Italy

Where you might have seen her: Look closely in 1992’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” She plays one of several supple-necked brides of the count.

Least favorite thing about the biz: “Because of the pace, movies can be made, sometimes, in a superficial way.”

If Italy wants to admire its newest star, Monica Bellucci, it may have to do so from a distance.

“If you want your work to be seen internationally, you have to leave Italy,” she laments. “You can’t wait for a ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ ‘Il Postino,’ or “Life Is Beautiful’ ” Italy has only one big movie every seven years.”

So in 1996, the cover girl turned actress left for Paris.

There, Bellucci’s breakthrough performance in the 1996 French lingo pic “L’Appartement” gained the attention of helmer Stephen Hopkins (“Lost in Space,” “The Ghost and the Darkness”), who sought to cast her in the upcoming Lion’s Gate/Sony U.S. release “Under Suspicion,” starring Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, where she’ll make her above-the-line debut.

Ironically, all the international attention has brought her back to Italy, where she’s starring in “Malena,” the first foreign lingo pic to be both produced and financed by Miramax.

In part, Bellucci’s desire to divide her work between the States and her native Italy stems from a belief that “you should have a strong identity with your culture. You shouldn’t have to do an American movie just because it’s an American movie,” she declares.

“Suspicion” helmer Hopkins calls Bellucci “outrageously gorgeous.” But Bellucci maintains that having been a model — she’s graced the cover of French Elle — was hardly an advantage in her filmmaking efforts.

“When they think of you only as a model, it can hold you back,” she explains.

Hopkins is quick to note that she is as long on pluck and intuition as she is on looks, flying herself out to meet the “Under Suspicion” production team on her own dime and learning English at a stunning pace.

In “Suspicion” Bellucci plays the trophy wife of a murder suspect (Hackman) under investigation by a police captain. Hopkins said she wowed him with her understanding of the character’s psyche.

“She had lots of smart, straightforward comments,” explains Hopkins. “One reason I wanted her was that her character has some blame to take, and she understood that.”

“Suspicion” producer Lori McCreary describes her as having a “Katharine Hepburn-like grace on screen.”

But Bellucci immediately snorts at the comparison. And that’s much of her appeal, according to McCreary: “There’s a lot of unspoken emotion in her face. It cuts through the beauty. Unlike some, she’s unaware of the effect.”

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