NEW YORK — THE first weeks after Christmas tend to be a slow time in the film-reviewing trade.
Hollywood releases its would-be blockbusters before the holidays to capitalize on school vacations and the festivity-prone atmosphere of the season. It puts its ``prestige pictures'' into the marketplace around the same time, since movies don't qualify for Academy Awards unless they open commercially by the end of the year.
So if a Hollywood film arrives in your local multiplex during January, there's a strong chance the studio regards it as a weak commodity, both commercially and artistically. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and sometimes a studio loses faith in a film not because it's bad, but because it's too demanding or offbeat. Still, it's hard to work up much anticipation for most studio releases between New Year's Day and mid-February or so.
The bright side of this situation is that it creates a particularly large window for non-Hollywood fare to enter the theatrical circuit. International movies, independently produced films, and revivals take on special importance as the big studios brood over their upcoming superproductions and await the Memorial Day blitz.
Most of these ``specialized'' pictures open first in New York, spreading to additional markets if they're applauded by critics and audiences. Offerings slated for early 1994 include reissued films by Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman, documentaries on Beat Generation poetry and the AIDS crisis, and imports from Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited off-season movie is ``Fiorile,'' a new Italian drama by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. The film was given its American premiere at the New York Film Festival last fall. While it's a sweeping and ambitious film, it doesn't have the emotional impact of such Taviani works as ``Padre Padrone'' and ``The Night of the Shooting Stars,'' which have acquired near-classic status since their release. In short, it's just the sort of picture that might be swamped by Hollywood competition at a busier time of year, but may be able to find an audience in the postholiday period.
``Fiorile'' begins with a journey by two children and their parents to visit the youngsters' aging grandfather. Telling the kids about the Tuscan countryside they're traveling through, the father mentions a ``family curse'' that supposedly haunts their relatives in the region, and he decides to explain the history of this situation.
This leads to a series of lengthy flashbacks that make up most of the film. The first, set in the late 18th century, recounts the sadly ironic tale of a young soldier who allows infatuation to distract him from a chest of gold he's been ordered to guard. He incurs the death penalty for this dereliction, and the family curse commences when his lover fails to take revenge on the blackguard who stole the treasure from him.
The next flashback, set in the early 1900s, focuses on domestic intrigue - a scheme to foil a marriage, discovery of this plot, and a murderous outcome - in the clan that was made wealthy by the purloined gold.
The third flashback, set during the World War II era, shows another family member fighting against the Fascist cause, escaping death because of his family position, and trying to break the curse by sending his own son to another country. The film's ending brings the story full circle.
It's clear from this outline that ``Fiorile'' is large in scope, covering two centuries and a long list of characters. Credit goes to the Taviani brothers for sustaining a fairly intimate tone throughout the film, despite the many settings and incidents they've crowded into its two-hour running time.
Yet none of its plots and subplots are very memorable, and the action has less urgency than such dramatic material would lead one to expect. ``Fiorile'' is an interesting and sometimes compelling work, and followers of the European art-film scene can be happy it has reached American theater screens. But it doesn't show these talented cineastes at their inspired best.
* ``Fiorile'' is not rated. It contains a small amount of sex and violence.