BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — These days, Monica Bellucci seems to be speaking everyone's language.
The Italian actress continues to make films in her native tongue and expand her presence in French-language films, the latest being Gaspar Noe's shockingly realistic rape-vengeance drama "Irreversible." And she's making huge strides toward establishing herself in American films with the Bruce Willis military drama "Tears of the Sun" (opening in Salt Lake City Friday) and this year's two sequels to "The Matrix."
Her on-screen repertoire even includes Aramaic. She just finished shooting "The Passion," Mel Gibson's crucifixion drama shot in the dead tongue. Bellucci co-stars as Mary Magdalene opposite Jim Caviezel, who plays Christ.
"I have a good ear, that's for sure," Bellucci said of her flair for languages, including English, which she picked up on her own as an adult. "I don't know how I learned my English, because I never went to school for it."
Bellucci, 34, has been a star in Europe since the mid-1990s with "L'Appartement," her first French-language movie.
She has since moved between Italian and French projects and has co-starred in seven feature films with husband Vincent Cassel, whom she met on "L'Appartement." Their collaborations include "Irreversible" and the historical horror flick "Brotherhood of the Wolf."
Three years ago, Bellucci made good on a dream she'd held since she began acting in the early 1990s, landing the title role in "Malena," by beloved Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore ("Cinema Paradiso"). She starred as an aloof bride during World War II, ostracized by hypocritical Italian townsfolk and idolized by a group of teenage boys.
With "Malena," Bellucci caught the eye of "Matrix" cre-
ators Andy and Larry Wachowski, who cast her as the mysterious new character Persephone in "The Matrix Reloaded," due in theaters this May, and "The Matrix Revolutions," coming in November.
"Malena" also gave Bellucci an introduction to Willis and "Tears of the Sun" director Antoine Fuqua, who chose her to play a willful humanitarian doctor whom a team of U.S. Navy SEALs has been ordered to rescue from war-ravaged Nigeria.
"Malena" eventually brought Bellucci to Gibson's attention.
"So it was just a small independent Italian film that gave me the possibility to open a few doors for me here," Bellucci said in an interview during a U.S. publicity tour for "Irreversible" and "Tears of the Sun."
"But my idea's not to stay in America. My idea is to stay in Europe, to keep going with European movies and come here just if there is something that's interesting for me. I don't want to make an American movie just because it's American. I have to find the right one."
Bellucci, whose father runs a trucking company and whose mother is a painter, grew up a fan of such Italian screen stars as Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, but she did not initially pursue acting. She started out studying law, then turned to modeling, which led to a handful of film and TV roles in Europe.
Her career took off after Francis Ford Coppola cast her as one of the vampire's brides in 1992's "Bram Stoker's Dracula."
While "Tears of the Sun" will give Bellucci her widest exposure yet in America, "Irreversible" could make a deep impression, though playing only in limited release.
Writer-director Noe tells the story backward, using single-take sequences that run to 15 minutes or more, as a woman's lover and another friend frantically search for the man who raped her. The two men carry out a horrifyingly authentic act of vengeful violence.
The film spins backward to the repellent scene in which Bellucci's character is raped then beaten into a coma. Bellucci had to shoot the sequence half a dozen times during a single night.
While the movie angered some viewers in Europe, Bellucci said the point of the film was to show how rage and vengeance can lead peaceable people to actions with irreversible consequences.
"My hat's off to her for putting herself in that role," said "Tears of the Sun" director Fuqua. "She's so beautiful, and unfortunately, I think she has to do things like that to show she's serious about her craft and not just a glamor girl."
Bellucci is preparing to shoot another French-language film with her husband. She hopes to continue with a mix of smaller European films and larger American movies.
"In bigger-budget movies, you have a beautiful trailer, the food is good, you have more assistants around you," Bellucci said. "A beautiful car brings you to the set. But in front of the camera, nothing changes. Acting is acting."