* Passione d'Amore, by the Italian director Ettore Scola, is a mix of romance , melodrama, and absurdism. It will offend some viewers with its occasional nudity, and discombobulate others with the strangeness of its tale and its logic. Yet it has an unexpected power to match its distinctive style.

Set in 1862, the story centers on a young Italian officer who finds himself loved by a woman who is the exact opposite of his ideal. She is a steamily romantic sort who considers the pursuit of lovers a full-time occupation. And even more important, she is physically unattractive by the standards of her time -- the worst crime of all, to judge from the officer's panicky response to her overtures. But he is no match for the staying power of this femme fatale, and after a while he gets hooked. The triumphant lady then expires from sheer happiness while he fights a duel with her cousin, who happens to be his commanding officer.

Yes, it's just as obvious and operatic as it sounds. But the filmmaker makes his material work by treading a thin line between parody and pathos -- not treating the tale too solemnly, yet never quite lampooning it, either. And this approach works because the story revolves around such subjective and even fuzzy romantic notions to begin with. Lavishly outfitted and carefully directed, the film includes performances by Bernard Giraudeau, Laura Antonelli, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Valeria d'Obici -- who looks properly gaunt as the pivotal character, though she would probably be considered a raving beauty if she turned up today on the streets of New York.

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