Washington — A diplomatic cliffhanger unreeled at the Italian Embassy the night Ambassador Rinaldo Petrignani threw a party for ``The Two Lives of Mattia Pascal.'' ``Mattia Pascal'' was missing, two hours before it was to make its American premi`ere as the official Italian entry at the third European Community Festival here. Guests nibbling mozzarella in carozza moved through the long drawing room filled with beige silk and marble as the ambassador and his Danish-born wife waited for a bulletin on the film. Finally word came: The film had arrived at National Airport at 6:47 p.m., just 90 minutes before an SRO crowd at the American Film Institute (AFI) theater was to see it.
How it got there sounds like a scene from a Fellini film, perhaps ``81/2.'' Lost en route from Rome, the film turned up a day later in the wrong La Guardia Airport warehouse, was rushed aboard a Washington plane that developed engine trouble, put on a second plane, and cleared through customs at the last minute only by congressional intervention. ``This is a cliffhanger, a little more excitement than I had in mind,'' said AFI's festival director, Marcia Mitchell. The 11 other movies in the third Euro pean film festival titled ``Voyages'' have had less dramatic arrivals, but considerable impact on the filmgoing and diplomatic community here. This year the festival, which grows more ambitious annually, has come up with several superb films from the 12 members of the European Community.
The festival opened with ``Conge Fir e Mord,'' which isLuxembourgish for ``Vacation for a Murder,'' the first feature film ever made in Luxembourg. It may also be the first thriller in which a victim is dispatched by ``deerocide'': a deer's death rigged to look as if it had caused a fatal crash. This modest film, directed by high school teacher Paul Scheuer, was shot for only $12,000.
But the film got a lavish send-off at the festival, with Crown Prince Henri and Crown Princess Maria Teresa of Luxembourg, a handsome couple who look like MGM casting for royal roles, throwing a regal eight-course dinner for 300 diplomats, politicians, and celebrities at the new Georgian ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel here.
Film as a vivid form of diplomacy cropped up in this two-week festival, which involved a dozen Western European countries and their embassies here. Italian Ambassador Petrignani says, ``Film can have an important role as an instrument of diplomacy,'' explaining that movies project the country's image and further an understanding of it. The ambassador adds, ``We would like to develop . . . the cultural projection of Italy abroad, and cinema in my mind is an appropriate form of expression, bypassing langu age barriers through subtitles, so that the message goes through the images. . . .''
The images vary enormously from country to country in this festival. In Pat Murphy's searingly beautiful and tragic film, ``Anne Devlin,'' we are immersed in the densely green landscape of early 19th-century Ireland as rebel Robert Emmet leads a doomed uprising against English rule. The story is told through the eyes of an idealistic young farm woman, Anne Devlin, who spent three years in jail and faced execution for aiding Emmet and his men. She lived to write the prison memoirs which are the basis of this film. It was made for one-half million pounds (roughly $725,000) with money from the Irish arts council and a private investor. Director Pat Murphy, a determined woman with strawberry-blond hair, says she's talking now with American distributors who want to release it here in the spring.
Among the other outstanding pictures in the festival are:
From Great Britain, John Mackenzie's ``The Innocent,'' a lyrical and compassionate film about the coming of age of a troubled boy in the wild beauty of a North Yorkshire village;
The French-Egyptian ``Adieu, Bonaparte,'' a thundering, sometimes glorious, sometimes chaotic film about Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt and the resulting clash of cultures, directed by Egyptian Youssef Chahine with a fireworks performance by Michel Piccoli as Napoleon's General Cafarelli.
Italy's ``The Two Lives of Mattia Pascal,'' in which Marcello Mastroianni subverts his own unblinking charm in a masterly performance as the slothlike Pirandello hero. Finding himself accidentally declared dead, he then shapes a new life for himself in a tangle of red tape. Mario Monicelli directed this one, with mordant wit and a merry eye.
In the Danish entry, ``Beauty and the Beast,'' director Nils Malmros takes a bemused and loving look at the plight of a father trying to protect his sexually precocious daughter from a predatory boyfriend.
Two festival films which were not screened at this writing, Istvan Szabo's German entry ``Colonel Redl,'' and Portuguese Manoel Oliveira's daylong ``The Satin Slipper,'' are already going into American release. There may also be commercial possibilities in the Dutch entry, Nouchka van Brakel's ``The Cool Lakes of Death,'' because its gorgeous blond star Renee Soutendijk is a sudden box-office hit since ``The Fourth Man'' and because this period film, as lovely to look at as ``Elvira Madigan,'' is a roll ing soap opera. The Greek entry, Theo Angelopoulos's ``Voyage to Cythera,'' is the ponderous telling of a story about a Greek Civil War fighter who returns from exile to his village and thwarts villagers' plans for a resort. The film is redeemed by the final poignant scenes in which the exile and his wife are literally cast adrift on the sea by the greedy townspeople. At this writing, the Belgian ``Brussels by Night,'' and ``Benvenuta,'' along with Carlos Saura's Spanish entry ``Stilts,'' were yet to be scr eened.
The European film festival (AFI acted as host) is noncompetitive, unlike the Cannes and Venice festivals, and will stay so, according to AFI co-chairman George Stevens Jr. Mr. Stevens says the AFI shows these European films because ``Film is such an international medium, and there are so many fine films from around the world not seen in the United States.''