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The Performance

Valentina Cervi: The Italian actress found her character in 'Miracle at St. Anna,' Spike Lee's new movie set in World War II, far from typical.

September 25, 2008

"THE FIRST time I was here I was 16 years old," says Italian actress Valentina Cervi, back now in Los Angeles to promote the Spike Lee war movie, "Miracle at St. Anna." "It was very late at night. I was living on the hill. I walked out of the house and I saw these millions of lights that were put in a, how do you say, it seemed like an architect's thing, very geometrical, very perfect."

The 33-year-old Cervi (CHAIR-vee) -- a star in Italy and France who, despite sepia hair and eyes, bears a passing resemblance to the young Julie Christie -- speaks three languages. Her English, while sometimes halting, can be casually artful.

Los Angeles "is really mysterious to me. It's a very wild place. Emotions flow, very fast. Faster than any place I've been to," she says over coffee at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. "But at the same time, I could never be in Rome for more than a couple of months. It's a love-and-hate thing. Rome is amazing. But Rome is a place where things don't happen. Politics are like, we're living in a pond. You go away for two years and you come back and it's just the same. People are just the same."

When Lee came around looking for actors for "Miracle," which was shot on location in Italy, Cervi was excited. She had grown up on his films, especially "Summer of Sam," "Mo' Better Blues" and "Jungle Fever." However, she soon came to suspect she didn't fit the filmmaker's view of the "typical Italian woman, Sophia Loren. You know, I don't correspond to that, I'm sorry."

As one might expect of an actress who learned to speak French so she could play the title role in the acclaimed "Artemisia" (1997), Cervi hunted high and low for the book on which "Miracle" was based. On finally locating a copy -- in a small library 600 miles away -- she drove there and read it overnight.

"I said, 'What the . . . are these people saying? This character is not very typical. This woman is from Tuscany, which is not a Sicilian, big [chested] kind of thing. She's a real woman. She fights for things. She's courageous. I can do it!' "

After a long and sometimes bewildering audition process, Lee called and said, "Hi, I'm Eddie Murphy," she recalls, laughing. " 'I'm going to tell you that I decided to roll my dice on you.' That's what he said."

Cervi's character, Renata, lives in a village in which the able-bodied men -- including her husband -- have been called away to fight during World War II. Four African American soldiers arrive, ahead of a German advance, with a traumatized boy and the mysterious disembodied head of a statue. Although it's not explicit in the script, Cervi imagined for Renata a desire to experience the world beyond her tiny town and a pragmatism about the precariousness of life in wartime that fills out some of the character's hard left turns.

"We must not forget that we were in the war, and every moment is living or dying. So she follows her instinct," Cervi says. "She's able to reconquer her femininity, because war deprives you of your femininity. You might die frustrated because you're deprived of something."

The actress, whose grandfather, Gino Cervi, was one of Italy's most beloved figures of stage and screen, delved deeply into Renata's motivations, perhaps more so than the director intended.

"Well, I was making it a little more psychological" than Lee was, she says and then mock-reenacts their conversations about her motivations with the other characters: " 'I think she's in love with Stamps, but then she goes with Bishop because. . . .' 'Naah, naah, naah, naah. She wants [sex].' 'No, Spike! It's much deeper than this!' 'Whatever,' " she says with a laugh.

"He's very . . . some days he doesn't speak much," she says fondly. "He's in his own world, and I really adore him."

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Where you've seen her

Although Valentina Cervi is well known in Europe and has received many award nominations, her films in America are not plentiful. She was in Jane Campion's "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996) with Nicole Kidman and the TV movie "James Dean" (2001) with James Franco. She played the lead in the controversial 1997 biopic "Artemisia," which was nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film.

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