Francesco Rosi, the director of ''Three Brothers,'' is an affable and eloquent man who looks just like Ernest Borgnine. I met with him the other day, hours after his arrival in the United States to help launch the picture, which is Italy's entry in the Oscar race for best foreign film.
He is pleased that the movie has been received well by many critics - as it was in several European countries, too - and hopes it will find similar success with American audiences. Its reception by European viewers has been mixed. Moviegoers in France loved it, for example, while spectators in its native Italy were less enthusiastic, preferring escapist fare these days.
Rosi readily admits that ''Three Brothers'' is a serious effort, with little to offer escapists. ''The real protagonist,'' he says, ''is time. The story takes place in the present. But the past is also important in the memories of the characters. And the future is represented, too, by the children - and especially by the little girl, who stands for continuity and hope.''
By setting the story in a sleepy Southern town, Rosi hoped to give it a ''reflective, meditative'' quality. He sees the movie as a quiet commentary on ''the problems of Italy today'' - a phrase he repeats many times, emphasizing the topicality of the film rather than its deceptively bucolic atmosphere. He sees present-day Italy as a troubled and unsettled place, and agrees that the characters of ''Three Brothers'' mirror this discontent and confusion. But he insists that hope is also present, especially in the character of the old man at the center of the film. ''He is still close to the rhythms of life,'' Rosi says approvingly.
While film production in Italy has fallen off sharply during the past few years, Rosi remains active and involved, and convinced that a film needn't be ''sensational'' to have a meaningful impact on its audience. ''Every person sees a scene differently,'' he says. ''But if you work honestly and sincerely, and deal with basic human themes - life, death, time, loneliness, solidarity among all people - your message will be felt. The basic emotions are the same all over the world, and sincerity will always communicate. Sincerity is the key. . . .''