Monica Bellucci smashes the Bond-girl age ceiling in 'Spectre'
Monica Bellucci, 51, tells Celia Walden that outside the grip of Hollywood, middle-aged heroines have never been hotter
Looking like an early Renaissance Madonna - one pale hand laid in a graceful diagonal across her chest - Monica Bellucci is telling me about a recent swimming trip with her two daughters. "I had just put on a new green swimsuit when my five-year-old, Léonie, looked at me and said, 'Maman - you're explosifying!"' Throwing her head back, she trills with laughter.
"They've told me so many things in my life, but that was the biggest compliment I have ever received - and it's not even a word!" Perhaps it should be: one used uniquely to describe Bellucci. Because out of the thousands of panting adjectives used to sum up the actress's beauty over the decades, "explosifying" is as close as you'll get to the truth.
Still and sumptuous on a velvet sofa in her hotel suite - clad in a black knitted Alaïa midi dress and five-inch patent Louboutins - Bellucci is one of the few leading ladies who exceeds expectations in the flesh. Given her particular brand of smouldering sexuality, which harks back to the vintage va-va-voom of actresses like Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida, the only surprise is that she's made it to 51 without already having played a Bond girl.
When the call first came in from Sam Mendes, however, who was casting for Spectre - the 26th Bond film - Bellucci was momentarily mystified. "I assumed they wanted me to play the new M," she smiles. "I really did. But when Sam explained that he wanted 'an adult woman to seduce Bond for the first time', I realised that this was going to be revolutionary. It's such a beautiful example to set for other actresses - and other women."
Rather than react with defiance to being branded "the oldest Bond girl ever", Bellucci is utterly unsqueamish about the passing of time - both in personal and professional terms.
'"I've never really been in the Hollywood system," she shrugs. "But in Europe, all the actresses I see - Nathalie Baye, Kristin Scott Thomas, Charlotte Rampling and Isabelle Huppert - are still playing great, strong, feminine roles. And just look at Judi Dench! Things are changing, and there's a new way to look at actresses and women."
That may be true. But when you're born with a face like Bellucci's, it must be hard to get anyone to look beyond the prism of that beauty. Which is presumably why the actress has specialised in dark, provocative scenes, playing a rape victim in the thriller Irréversible, Mary Magdalene in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the Mirror Queen in Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm and a breastfeeding prostitute in Bertrand Blier's Combien Tu M'aimes?.
All of which makes her role in Spectre as Lucia Sciarra - a Mafioso femme fatale widowed by 007 - look positively wholesome. "Daniel [Craig] is so generous as an actor and a man, so I was never uncomfortable. When you have to do intimate scenes with someone, it's so important for the chemistry to be there - because then it becomes more like a tango," she says.
"But I don't think it's a coincidence that a lot of the roles I'm playing now are women coming out of the darkness into the light - because I do feel that ageing has given me a new freedom. When I was younger, people would tell me I looked cold," she muses. "But maybe that was because I was scared and insecure, and knew so little about life." Now that she has reached the half-century mark - with two children, Léonie and Deva, 11, from her marriage to actor Vincent Cassel, from whom she separated in 2013 - Bellucci feels more "in touch" with herself, she says, "which allows me to act so much better".
In the past, she has spoken defiantly about the roles her looks have denied her, but today she's more considered on the subject. "To speak about beauty as a handicap is very bad," she frowns, "because beauty is a gift, just like good health or intelligence. The only thing is not to be proud of being beautiful. Because you didn't do anything; it was given to you."
It was a haulage company owner and a housewife from the Umbrian town of Città di Castello who bestowed her looks upon her. "I was very shy as a girl. Absurdly shy, even. Maybe because I was an only child," she goes on, tellingly pronouncing "only" as "lonely".
"So when I turned 13 and started to be pretty, I was very glad because people came to me - rather than me having to seek them out.
"But at the same time, I think I used [my looks] to create a mask that I could protect myself with. So in a way it's good when that youthful beauty - what in France they call 'la beauté du diable' - starts to fade because you don't have that mask to hide behind any more.
"I'm not someone who wakes up at 6am to go to the gym," she grimaces. "So I just didn't eat pasta for a few days before we started shooting - and that was about it. Because the truth is that I like cakes and pasta, the odd glass of wine and a very occasional cigarette. My advice is: eat well, drink well, have good sex - and laugh a lot. The rest comes all on its own."
When Bellucci does succumb to "moments of weakness", she thinks about her grandmothers. "For me, true beauty has nothing to do with wrinkles and everything to do with the fact that my maternal grandmother raised five children just after the war and remained a fighter throughout her life. True beauty is the slick of red lipstick my paternal grandmother would put on before going to church on Sunday. Italian women have a unique strength, you know, because they've had to fight so much in their lives."
Channelling that strength for her role in Spectre came easy for Bellucci, who understands all too well what it's like to "come from a world where men have all the power". "It's no coincidence that she's Italian," she shrugs, "because in our country women still have to learn how to be free. You can have all the money and independence in the world, but if you've been in that cage for years, you're still afraid to set foot outside.
"In so many places in the world, women have been prisoners for so long that they feel they have to scream about their rights. But when you scream, nobody listens to you. Real authority comes when you no longer need to scream - and that's something we women still need to learn." - The Telegraph