The timing may be coincidental, but it feels apt that I interviewed Monica Bellucci on International Women’s Day, March 8. One of the most restlessly globe-trotting stars in world cinema, the Italian model-turned-actor refuses to let her filmography be dictated either by national borders or imagined age brackets: Now in her 50s and defying the industry’s oft-decried shutout of women over 40, she has recently worked with Iranian auteur Bahman Ghobadi on “Rhino Season,” lent otherworldly luster to fellow Italian Alice Rohrwacher’s rural fable “The Wonders” and struck sparks with Daniel Craig in last year’s 007 outing “Spectre.” She’ll be hitting TV screens, too, with a role in Neil Jordan’s French-set crime series “Riviera,” which starts rolling in June.
Fresh from shooting a lead role in “On the Milky Road,” the long-awaited — and Cannes-tipped — new feature from two-time Palme d’Or winner Emir Kusturica, Bellucci arrived at the Miami Film Festival to present Quebecois helmer Guy Edoin’s “Ville-Marie.” A lively, self-reflexive melodrama, the pic gives Bellucci one of her rangiest roles to date, as a temperamental screen siren fighting to regain a connection with her adult son.
“Ville-Marie” gives you a lot to play, and to play with.
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“Sophie is really three roles in one: an actress, the woman she plays, and also just a woman and mother. She’s an actress who covers her weaknesses with her work, using her persona as an actress to protect herself in some way. And although she’s a mother, she’s not the mother she would love to be. She has to drop her mask, to have the courage to be just herself. For the first time, she gets in touch with her soul. I’m a mother myself, but I have two girls and they’re not teenagers yet, but I can identify with that struggle: If they’d come to me with this role 15 years ago, it would have been completely different for me.”
Why so? Is it only a matter of motherhood, or of the understanding that comes with age?
“It’s about a kind of physical aging, a physical decadence: When someone is suffering you have to see this in the body and the face. I say all the time that actors use their bodies like objects of war. To see a woman who doesn’t care anymore about her beauty, giving that control away because at that moment, she needs to get in touch with death, and with reality. She doesn’t have to be afraid. And you don’t get in touch with death thinking about your makeup.”
Many actresses have said they get fewer opportunities after 40, yet it seems you’re playing the most varied roles of your career now. Do you think we’re seeing less ageism in the film industry?
“It can’t be a general subject: it’s different for different people. But then you see all those incredible actresses that I respect so much in Europe and also in America: Isabelle Huppert, Charlotte Rampling, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep. Of course, we’re not talking about exactly the same age, but those women still have the chance to play very strong parts, very sexy parts, parts where their femininity is so well-described.
“We had a moment in the ’40s and ’50s, where female characters were very strong in film, where these incredible roles were written for women like Joan Crawford, like Bette Davis. But then there was a space of time where — I don’t know why — it wasn’t like that. It became difficult for women to find certain roles after a certain age. We saw it in Italy too: Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Silvana Mangano. They weren’t being used, and it was that way all over. But I think we can talk about a new era, with another way to look at actresses.”
What makes you say yes to a project?
“I like to be surprised. I’m not someone that wants to control everything. I like to work with people that bring their talents to the project. So I like it when the makeup artist has a chance to do their work, when the dresser does their work, when the director does their work. They all come with stories and ideas to think about. I like to work with people who are completely different from each other: in their style, in their culture, in their background. Because through their talents, I can show the different sides I have, and they come up with ideas that I wouldn’t think of myself. I’ve been a hooker for Betrand Blier and Mary Magdalene for Mel Gibson, you know?
“So when I’m that interested in the project and the people, I don’t think about how many minutes I’ll be on the screen. In Rebecca Miller’s film (“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”), I was in it for a very short time, but the role was so strong and beautiful. It’s about how much I have to give to the character.”
Many are intrigued by “On the Milky Road,” the film you’ve just wrapped with Emir Kusturica. What can you tell us about it?
“We just finished shooting like a week ago, after four years of shooting. It’s a love story between two adults, with Emir playing the male part. And it’s set during the war of the Balkans, but it’s a love and a war that could have been in every war, and every love. It’s interesting in that it’s about two people who have nothing to lose anymore. They’ve seen everything. But still, when they meet, even though they’re not young anymore, something magic is going to happen. It’s going to be a moment between love, death and resurrection. Everything is very poetic and very violent. It’s been a long time in the making for Emir so the feelings there run deep.”
In the publicity you did for “Spectre” last year, you were very insistent that you were playing a “Bond woman,” not a Bond girl. When it comes to roles, what separates a woman from a girl?
“Ha, the age!”
Just the age?
“Well, when you are a girl, you live as a girl. You see life as a girl, which is an amazing moment. But I think it’s important to know that the life of a woman is a different phase, a completely different moment. It’s so important to respect that.”
Does recognizing that different phase change your approach to acting?
“I think the person creates the artist. And I think when you get lost within your person, your artistry get lost too. It’s like in ‘Birdman.’ Because the artist inside you is attached to your soul. And when you’re not attached to yourself anymore, the soul goes away. You can’t let that happen.”