At the age of 14, Ornella Muti was selected by director Damiano Damiani to play the lead role in his 1970 Italian film ‘La moglie più bella’ (‘The Most Beautiful Wife’). While she didn’t become a star immediately, it helped her bag more roles both in Italy and abroad, even though mostly in low-budget films with erotic scenes. Some of her early Italian films included ‘Summer Affair’, ‘Oasis of Fear’, ‘The Nun and the Devil’, ‘Fiorina la vacca’, ‘Tutti figli di Mammasantissima’ and ‘Paolo il caldo’. Her overseas projects were mostly in Spain, such as her Spanish debut ‘Esperienze prematrimoniali’ in 1972, followed by ‘Un solo grande amore’ (‘The House of the Doves’) the same year. In 1974, she achieved success playing the lead female roles in the drama films ‘Romanzo popolare’ and ‘Appassionata’. The same year, she also played the lead roles in the Spanish films ‘Una chica y un señor’ and ‘Cebo para una adolescente’. The following year, she appeared in the 1975 French-Italian-Spanish horror fantasy film ‘Leonor’ and the Spanish drama film ‘La joven casada’.
A turning point in Ornella Muti’s career was the 1976 French-Italian film ‘La Derniere femme’ (‘The Last Woman’), which saw her in a more intense role that earned her favorable comparisons with actresses like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. The following year, she further showcased her acting prowess in films such as the French political thriller ‘Mort d'un pourri’ (‘Death of a Corrupt Man’) and the Italian comedy film ‘I nuovi mostri’ (‘Viva Italia!’). During this period, she went on to star in a host of Italian films such as the crime comedies ‘Come una rosa al naso’ (‘Pure as a Lily’) and ‘La stanza del vescovo’ (‘The Bishop's Bedroom’), the drama films ‘Ritratto di borghesia in nero’ (‘Nest of Vipers’), ‘Primo amore’ (‘First Love’), and ‘Eutanasia di un amore’, and the mystery comedy ‘Giallo napoletano’ (‘Atrocious Tales of Love and Death’). In 1979, she also acted in the Italian-Soviet romantic drama ‘La vita è bella’ (‘Life Is Beautiful’).
Ornella Muti earned international recognition in 1980 after appearing alongside Adriano Celentano in the Italian romantic comedy ‘Il bisbetico domato’ (‘The Taming of the Scoundrel’), which was particularly popular in the USSR. The same year, she made her English-speaking film debut as evil Princess Aura in the sci-fi action adventure film ‘Flash Gordon’. Also in 1980, she shot for Marco Ferreri’s drama film ‘Storie di ordinaria follia’ in English in Los Angeles and was invited to the Venice Film Festival following its release the next year. She subsequently starred in the American romantic drama film ‘Love & Money’, but refused the lead role in the British spy film ‘For Your Eyes Only’, featuring Roger Moore as James Bond, because her costume designer was not hired. She again teamed up with co-star Celentano and director-duo Castellano and Pipolo for the 1981 blockbuster Italian film ‘Innamorato pazzo’. During this period, she also collaborated with director Pasquale Festa Campanile and actor Renato Pozzetto in a series of movies like ‘Nessuno è perfetto’, ‘La ragazza di Trieste’, and ‘Un povero ricco’.
Following an appearance in the 1983 crime comedy ‘Bonnie e Clyde all'italiana’, she was again invited to the Venice Film Festival for another Ferreri film, ‘Il futuro è donna’ (‘The Future Is Woman’), in 1984. The same year, she appeared opposite Jeremy Irons in the Franco-German romantic drama ‘Un amour de Swann’ (‘Swann in Love’), which was nominated for 2 ‘BAFTA Awards’. In the following years, she continued to appear in a number of Italian films and also started her television career with the series ‘The Hitchhiker’ (1986) and the telefilm ‘Casanova’ (1987). However, her most notable performances during this period were in the Franco-Italian drama ‘Cronaca di una morte annunciata’ (‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’), which was very popular in Europe and Latin America; the Italian romantic drama ‘Codice privato’, in which her solo performance earned her several awards and accolades; the historical comedy drama ‘'O re’; and the adventure comedy ‘Il viaggio di Capitan Fracassa’ (‘The Voyage of Captain Fracassa’), in which she co-starred with her daughter Naike Rivelli in the latter’s film debut.
During the early 1990s, Ornella Muti appeared in several American films such as ‘Oscar’, starring Sylvester Stallone, and ‘Once Upon a Crime...’. Throughout the decade, she continued to appear in Italian, French and Spanish movies such as ‘Il conte Max’, ‘El amante bilingüe’, ‘Tatiana, la muñeca rusa’, ‘Pour rire!’, ‘Mordbüro’, and ‘L'inconnu de Strasbourg’. She also featured more frequently on made-for-television films and acted in the four-part French-Italian miniseries ‘Le Comte de Monte Cristo’ (‘The Count of Monte Cristo’) (1998). At the turn of the century, she split her time equally film and television roles and appeared in series such as ‘Lo zio d'America’ (2002), ‘Il sangue e la rosa’ (2008), the English-language French miniseries ‘Deep’ (2016), and ‘Sirene’ (2017), which earned her notoriety among the younger generation. Among her numerous big screen appearances, the most significant was in Woody Allen’s 2012 romantic comedy film ‘To Rome with Love’.