'I'm more than a big-breasted peasant,' star tells sexist Italians

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Dramatically tall, with enormous eyes and lips and a figure that could stop traffic, she was too much for the besotted postman in the film that made her famous. Now, though, the 37-year-old actress has been working behind the camera as the producer of All the Invisible Children. It comprises seven short films made by eight directors - including the huge names Spike Lee, John Woo and Ridley Scott.

It was presented out of competition on Thursday in Venice, where, Cucinotta said, it was greeted by "10 minutes of applause".

Not bad for a woman who found that the very assets that made her name also hampered her career. From the start, she claims, the people with power in the Italian film world dismissed her as a buxom country wench. Based in the northern city of Milan they were prejudiced against a daughter of the southern island of Sicily. "For them I was tettona and terrona [a big-breasted southern peasant]". Now she says that after making "45 films in seven years" it is time to reinvent herself.

Made in 1994, Il Postino was the true story of how the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda settled on the island of Capri after being forced into exile, and of how the uneducated postman who brings his letters discovers how poetry can capture a woman's heart - in this case, Beatrice, played by Cucinotta.

Starring Massimo Troisi - who was gravely ill and died shortly after the film was made - Il Postino was directed by Englishman Michael Radford in Italian, and was nominated for a clutch of Oscars. She readily admits that it remains the film for which she is best known. "Just last month I was in a Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles and a woman came to my table and shrieked, 'Beatrice!'. 'Who's this Beatrice?' I asked myself. Then I realised: she was thinking of Il Postino."

At the start of her career, people compared her to Sophia Loren. "But the times were different for Sophia," she says, "and above all she had a producer at her back, her husband Carlo Ponti." Cucinotta had no equivalent, so "I made too many films, I was not selective enough".

The change in career direction was, she said, the result of a rethink when she took a year off to have a baby - her daughter Julia, four this month.

The films in All the Invisible Children explore zones of danger and uncertainty. Spike Lee's is about an HIV-positive adolescent in Brooklyn, while John Woo's concerns the lives of a rich kid and an orphan in the Far East. Unicef was involved in the film's gestation, and will benefit from a percentage of the profits.

Happily settled with her businessman husband Giulio Violati, Cucinotta seems to have been mellowed by motherhood. She has more films as producer in the pipeline, including one about cinema in the south of Italy at the end of the 19th century, "the shocking effect of its arrival".

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