Monica Bellucci has been here before. When we first speak, the actress and great beauty is in Syracuse, Sicily, staying in the same town where she portrayed the titular character in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna. Admittedly, she could be in much worse places—but it’s not a holiday, she assures me. Her daughter Deva is modelling for Dolce and Gabbana, and Mamma Bellucci has arrived to show her support. “Life happens in a roundabout way,” she proudly explains, “the spot where Deva is performing is the exact site where we shot the movie twenty-years-ago.”
The real holiday is next week. It gives ample time to spend with the family before continuing on her theatre tour. Then—as if she wasn’t busy enough—there are more movies to star in and magazine covers to grace. There is a professional level of excitement when discussing her long list of projects (a pleasant rattling-off about this-and-that coming-to-a-screen-near-you) but Monica’s voice noticeably softens while describing her daughters, something she does often in our two conversations: “I have done many things in my life, but this is the journey that really intrigues me most right now,” she tells me.
Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that her most recent film in production is titled, Mafia Mamma. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, it portrays a suburban mother (Toni Collette) who inherits a mafia family in Italy. Bellucci plays tough consigliere Bianca. “I guess I am a Mafia Mamma,” she laughs. “It’s very funny and well-written. Sometimes, I like to star in movies for families to watch, something I can see with my children—not like some of my other projects.” Indeed, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible this ain’t, and Monica is perhaps one of the few actresses who has such an indefinable career. Her resumé is a celluloid casserole, composed of The Apartment, The Passion of the Christ, Asterix and Obelix and last year’s The Girl in the Fountain. “I want to be open to as many different experiences, and work with as many beautiful artists as possible,” she tells me. One of these experiences was becoming the oldest Bond Girl to date with Spectre; and another is taking to the stage for the first time as Maria Callas—a job that required her to overcome her stage fright.
The production, titled Letters and Memoirs, is based on the diva’s posthumously discovered writing. Monica portrays the legendary soprano with a righteous devotion to a woman she feels is still misunderstood (Callas’s reputation was of an ugly-duckling Ice Queen—considerably different to Monica’s). She had some first-hand experience to go on, too, having met Callas while researching opera singers for an early role in Italy. “All I can say is that she was sincere about everything, and had a certain vulnerability which we wanted to capture in the theatre. This is not about Maria Callas, the Legend. It is Maria Callas, the Human.” Despite their differences, director Tom Volf had Monica in mind all along: “Maria was Greek, born in New York, and Tom caught on to the energy, the passion, that we both share as Mediterranean women.”
Monica herself was born in the small Umbrian town of Città di Castello. Raised in neighbouring Perugia—in a tiny, but scenic village as distant from the glamour of Callas’s New York as a high street is to Harrods—it was the faces she watched on-screen who inspired her to act. She recounts the pantheon of Italian screen goddesses with fangirlish warmth: Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, Vitti, Lollobrigida…but surely she is aware that, particularly for a newer generation, she bookends that same list? “I am flattered, but I don’t see myself among them,” she replies, “their femininity was so powerful to see as a young woman, and I feel that I am more of a product of their work than anything else.”
The teenage Monica would sometimes watch three films a day, poring over the works of De Sica, Visconti, and Rossellini. Her parents, she insists, were not really film people. This was an organic romance cultivated by her curiosity for celebrity image, and after a brief stint training to be a lawyer, she moved to Milan to embark on a modelling career. Soon after, she finally joined an acting school in Rome, and the rest is history. “Nowadays, you can start as a model and crossover into acting very easily [perhaps because of social media],” she says, “but back then, even if you had built up a strong portfolio, you were always close to having to go back to your hometown and find another job. On a few occasions, I was close.”
As we discuss those early years, another voice emerges from the background. She apologises to me. She has to leave. Deva will be on soon; prompting me to mention her memories from Malèna again and the way life comes full-circle. Funny enough, I remember, didn’t a young Monica Bellucci become the face of Dolce and Gabbana too?
The next time we speak, Monica is in Greece—the island of Paros, to be exact. She is having a brief family holiday before flying out to work in Spain (she doesn’t give the details) and has left aside some time for our conversation. “I appreciate the work, don’t get me wrong,” she says, as the Aeolian wind breezes in and out of our conversation, “but right now I am happy to do nothing. Sometimes, I just want to wake up and stay in bed. Get on a plane for a vacation. Spend time with friends. My priorities have changed since the pandemic. You never know how life can change in a second.”
I try not to ask about the pandemic. She’s unsure, too, and hesitates to go on. What more is there to say, except that those years changed all of our perspectives forever? “In a way, it was good for me. I now know what’s important in life,” Monica says, “I’ve spent most of my career running, and I need to be still. Maybe I’ll be done in three years.”
She goes on to mention her children, and that’s perhaps no coincidence. Monica gave birth to Deva when she was forty, after decades of stardom. “I took a risk being so late,” she adds, “but thankfully it went well. The scariest thing was deciding if I wanted to return to acting—because it isn’t like being a doctor or a lawyer. The lifestyle is different.”
Does seeing Deva and Léonie grow up make her think about how women are treated today? Deva in particular has become a star in her own right in Italy, and her relationship with her model boyfriend features on gossip columns and draws hordes of leering paparazzi. But Monica doesn’t want to be overbearing. It’s something she’s conscious of—perhaps more than capable of doing. “It’s hard but you have to let them find their own way. As a mother, I try to be the right amount of detached,” she adds. “Besides, girls nowadays are so impressive. They are much more natural than my generation, in both how they dress and behave. They’re not scared to be fragile. There was a lot of judgement going on back then. I couldn’t be seen to make mistakes.” Curiously, Monica never endured the extreme moments of sexism that has been magnified with #MeToo. “I’m happy that women are having the courage to speak up now, because I’m sure that was all going on…But in honesty,” she adds, firmly: “I have never had a situation where I couldn’t handle myself.”
She laughs when I mention the decades of male fawning, to the point where I regret asking. “Look, I know that life was very generous to me. That image was once a part of my life, but if you’re twenty, thirty-five or even fifty, you have to move on from that, or you go crazy,” she says, “…you cannot just get by on beauty.” That said, at fifty-five Monica is still one of Italy’s most seductive exports, a car-halting Venus in the mould of Sophia Loren. I saw her for the first time in 2003, on the cover of a tattered issue of FHM at my father’s barbershop. It was before I cared about films, and at the age where I began to care a lot about women. ‘Matrix Bombshell’ was the headline—an unimaginative title for the dark, sensual photographs and her confident interview answers (“In Italy, women are more dangerous than shotguns”). There was something glamorous about it; a contrast to the naive Atomic Kittens and soap-star-Staceys that I grew up seeing in England. Monica Bellucci was not the girl-next-door. She was elegant, powerful, and otherworldly: an Italian goddess.
But Monica finds her image, or the way people perceive her, to be a little strange at times. She underplays it as an external construct started by the press, and if they meet her in person, she suggests, it would be quite different. “There’s not much I can do about it. When you’re in the public eye, you don’t have ownership of your image,” she shrugs. “Overthinking it can be dangerous, and you can lose yourself, as many people have done before me.”
Does she share this advice with her daughters? As much as Monica insists on letting them form their own images, she is present in everything they do. They are a family of artists, she says, describing Deva and Léonie’s careers as though she herself is living through them; overjoyed by the prospect of her children realising their dreams. “Kids are better than us… although it is quite difficult to be a parent,” she admits, finally, “we make mistakes, too. They’re teaching me more than I could ever teach them, even after all these years.”
But I feel that this is not completely fair. A parent as nurturing and supportive as Monica is more valuable than their children might realise—and I’m speaking from experience here. At that point, a new voice appears in the background, interrupting the hobbling footnotes and pleasantries of a dying conversation. It’s softer this time, a young girl’s voice, and Monica replies with an affectionate coo. “Sorry again Chris, but I’ve got to go. I’m going to spend some time with the kids.” It’s a family holiday, and nothing gets in the way of that. Because although she will star in many more films, appear on a myriad of glossy covers, and retread the boards as Maria Callas (who once claimed that she who is “born an artist stays an artist”) Monica Bellucci the restless Icon, Great Beauty, and Artist, sees herself, first and foremost, as Monica Bellucci the Mother.