American audiences have an on-and-off romance with Italian movies. Gone are the days when Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, and Rossellini reigned supreme on American screens. Yet the busy Italian cinema continues to crank out noteworthy films, and a newer crop of directors continue to woo viewers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Among the most serious of them, in subject matter and treatment, are Francesco Rosi and Bernardo Bertolucci. Both lean toward important themes and uncompromising styles. Here the similarity ends, however. While the fiery Bertolucci tends to overstate and overplay, Rosi does just the opposite, with results that are generally subdued and muted.
Rosi's latest drama, ''Three Brothers,'' fits right in with such earlier pictures as ''Eboli'' and ''The Mattei Affair.'' The style is modest, even withdrawn. The performances are quiet and self-effacing. Still, the film generates a good deal of emotional power by dealing honestly and directly with universal problems.
The main characters are three men who return to their sleepy hometown in southern Italy after their mother's death. Not much happens as they comfort their aged father, visit old acquaintances, and cautiously renew their own kinship. Nor is anything resolved, in their lives or relationships. What does grow and develop is an awareness of how fragile the human condition is and how deeply intertwined our lives are with the people around us.
These realizations are dramatized as the men struggle with problems in their own experience. One, a judge, fears for the safety of himself and his family if he takes on an important case. Another, a social worker, wonders if good intentions and great effort will ever rid the world of corruption and delinquency. The third, a would-be revolutionary, despairs of asserting himself in a callous and unjust society.
The film explores these difficult questions through flashbacks, discussions among the characters, and even fantasy sequences. At the same time, it contrasts the self-awareness of the main characters with the simplicity of their hometown, and with the rudimentary life their father has apparently led.
It is not Rosi's intention to solve problems for his characters, or to draw social conclusions for his audience. Just the opposite, he intensifies matters by suggesting that the human dilemma is based on intractable contradictions - between the pain of self-awareness and the pain of ignorance, between the joy of affection and the anguish of loss.
What lends the film its deeply moving quality is the further suggestion that love and compassion can be the tools of transcendence. This hopeful attitude is never stated, but rather is manifested through simple images such as the final shot of the elderly father remembering his late wife by adding her wedding ring to his gnarled finger. Moments like this are as powerful as they are gentle, soaring above the tangled problems that dominate most of the movie's scenes.
In a very real sense, ''Three Brothers'' is a political film - touching on matters of social unrest, injustice, terrorism. None of its characters are really at home in today's world, from the relatively sophisticated brothers to the rural villagers who haggle about such issues as violence and capital punishment.
Yet the filmmaker brings these figures vividly alive by rooting their drama in direct experience rather than theory or abstract argument, bathing faces and scenes in warm Italian sunlight and treating them all as generously as he knows how. Rosi has never developed the radiant cinematic insight of an Ermanno Olmi or the earthy filmic power of the Taviani brothers, and his film doesn't quite achieve the spirited splendor of ''The Tree of Wooden Clogs'' or the primal impact of ''Padre Padrone'' at its best. Yet the carefully acted, thoughtfully directed ''Three Brothers'' is the most impressive Italian film to reach American shores in a long while.
Another current Italian picture, ''The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man,'' treads similar territory with somewhat similar aims. But it falls short because it seems calculated and indecisive at the same time - a crafty attempt to explore political problems in human terms, with no clear idea of how to go about this.
The main character, the ''ridiculous man,'' is an industrialist who runs a failing cheese factory. When his son is apparently kidnapped by terrorists, he scrambles to raise the ransom they demand. Then, fearing his son must be already murdered, he decides to use the cash as a secret investment in his business. To him, this is just good sense. To the filmmaker, Bernardo Bertolucci, it's a kind of supply-side nightmare, symbolizing his radical critique of contemporary capitalism.
Bertolucci is on his best behavior here, cinematically. Except for a quick nude shot, there's none of the raging sensationalism that peppered ''Luna,'' and the notorious ''Last Tango in Paris.'' As critics have already noted, he is apparently harking back to his quietly serious days as director of ''Before the Revolution'' and ''The Spider's Strategem.'' Like them, this is a brooding and inward picture, without much flash or fanfare.
Yet it doesn't have much impact, either. The action wanders too much, the characters invite little interest, and some of the metaphors are terribly heavy-handed. The last scene tries for mythic ambiguity but seems merely confused, apart from a striking touch at the very end. It's good to see Bertolucci working on a manageable scale again after the miscalculations of ''Luna'' and ''1900.'' But he hasn't yet learned to give his intimate dramas the scope and sweep that characterize his best epic work. Until he masters that trick, he will be just half the artist he could become.