THERE'S no doubt that Monica Bellucci is perfectly cast in the new movie from the director of the acclaimed Cinema Paradiso. She plays the title character in Malena - a woman who causes men's heads to turn wherever she goes.

So surely it was no coincidence that the response to the invitation to interview the Italian actress and worthy successor to Sophia Loren was almost exclusively male. The former model took her first tentative step off the catwalk and into movies as a vampire feasting on Keanu Reeves' blood in Francis Ford Coppola's film of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Since then she has made pictures in her native Italy, France (where she met and married actor Vincent Cassel) and America.

Already she's co-starred with Gene Hackman and Gerard Depardieu. Next she joins Reeves again for the sequel to the sci-fi action thriller The Matrix.

Bellucci's figure - of which we see a lot as Malena - is encased on a smart business suit and her dark hair is pulled back for our meeting but there's no denying she's a stunner no matter how much she might try to disguise it.

Comparisons with a glamorous successful Italian icon like Loren are inevitable if not particularly welcome. "No one can be like Loren. She's very special," says Bellucci. "She's the only one and it's not possible any more to be this great Italian star because it's impossible to make Italian films today like she did. It's difficult to exist just in Italian films. The only way is through international situations."

Malena is a great calling card for Hollywood - the story of a beautiful young widow who leaves men shaken and very definitely stirred in a small Sicilian village during the Second World War. Malena is a victim of her own looks, admired by men and hated by women who finally turn on her, beating her viciously and running her out of town. Bellucci views her as a victim of that historical period. "To understand her we have to understand Sicilian society at the time. A woman's place was only as a mother or wife. Women only existed through men.

"That's why women in the village hated her because she provoked men's desire just walking down the street. I can understand her because I come from a small place in Italy. I know what's it's like to walk down the street and men look at you and women are jealous. She is a product of her time. She doesn't have an identity without her man. I've fought all my life to be free and independent as I've never wanted to be dependent on a man, " she says.

Director Giuseppe Tornatore decided that Bellucci was ideal for Malena after working with her on a commercial for Dolce and Gabanna. Although she was happy to win the role, she was also scared because the character has very little dialogue. Much is conveyed through looks and body language.

"It was like I had an interior monologue in each scene. Even if she doesn't speak much, in the end you get attached to her. It was a challenge to play someone who acts that way," she says. One of the hardest scenes to film shows Malena being attacked by women in the village square. It took five days to film, leaving her so physically and emotionally exhausted that she spent the following two days in bed.

"I didn't want them to use a body double," she says. "But that wasn't the most difficult - that was the end scene where she has to go back and forgive the women who tried to kill her," she says.

For her, acting is much harder than modelling, which she started while a law student at university. At first she thought she could combine studies and modelling before realising it had to be one or the other. She chose to be a model, becoming one of the most sought-after on the world circuit.

The small role in Dracula gave her a taste for acting which she returned to Europe to pursue in Italian and then French films like L'Apartement, on which she met her husband Cassel.

Home now is Paris but her work takes her all over the world. Under Suspicion, in which she co-starred with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, gave her plenty of exposure worldwide although it suffered from poor distribution in England. But it's The Matrix sequel, which she begins filming in September, that guarantees to bring her real international recognition. She remains tight-lipped about both her role and whether she's in training for the energetic stylishly-choreographed fight sequences that were the hallmark of the first Matrix. All she'll say is that she loved the first one and its young directors, the Wachowski brothers. "In general I work with young people full of energy," she says.

"My goal is not to make American films but to make good films. In America I am in the same position as when I went to Paris four years ago - I'm meeting people and seeing what happens."

* Malena (15) opens at City Screen, York, on March 30 and at the Tyneside, Newcastle, in late April.