The Night of the Shooting Stars comes from the Italian filmmaking team of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. They rose to prominence a few years ago with ''Padre Padrone,'' a powerful tale of father-son relations, and returned less auspiciously to American screens with ''The Meadow'' last season.
Their latest, originally known as ''The Night of St. Lawrence,'' has opened in the United States after being well received at the Cannes and New York film festivals. It was directed by both Taviani brothers, who also wrote it in collaboration with producer Giuliani G. De Negri. The rating is R, reflecting some earthy details of peasant life and a small amount of sexual material and historical violence.
The story takes place in 1944, when Italy was nearly suffocating under the weight of World War II. The main characters are a group of men, women, and children who defy a German order to gather in their town's cathedral - where their doom would be certain - and take off into the countryside, hoping to find American soldiers and liberation.
The Taviani brothers treat this quest as the starting point for a series of cinematic variations, some spectacular and some very subtle. Certain characters are too stiffly handled, such as a young fascist who becomes the film's most awful villain. Yet others are drawn with great delicacy - including a six-year-old girl whose eyes see much of the action for us and who paradoxically finds this wartime odyssey the greatest thrill of her little life. It's an uneven movie, with scenes that soar and others that fall flat. But it has a richness of imagination and a willingness to mingle the real with the possible that separate it from most current films.
Over lunch a few months ago, I discussed the picture with the Taviani brothers through an interpreter. They told me the story and setting are close to their own experience, when they were adolescents in Tuscany. And they quickly added that the little girl's reaction to the adventure - childish pleasure rather than adult foreboding - isn't far from their own at the time.
''Our town was almost medieval,'' said Vittorio Taviani. ''It was run like a feudal village, and it seemed that it would never change or improve. This was very bad, because we were in a fascist period, a very negative time.
''Then came that summer of '44. And suddenly everything changed - the same things we thought were unchangeable! Under the pressure of war, people suddenly felt the necessity of taking their situation in hand and doing something about it.''
This experience made a lasting impression on the Taviani brothers. ''It is a great thing for two boys like us,'' continued Vittorio, ''to see everything change just when it seemed lost and horrible forever. Now that we're men, and we look back at our lives - privately and professionally - we know that change and improvement are possible even at the worst dead end. And that is why we made this film.''
For many years, the brothers were hesitant about launching this particular project. For one thing, they felt older filmmakers - ''our teachers'' - had already chronicled the war years well. For another, says Paolo, ''We never make a film just to tell ideas or history. We want more than that.''
The feeling persisted, however, that the tale had to be put on film. So they set out to make a movie ''that was not just our memory, but a collective memory that includes the whole region,'' says Paolo. ''We went into the Tuscan countryside and listened to folk tales, legends, myths, and memories independent of ours. And as we listened, we realized that some people were lengthening their stories, while others shortened them or added their own imaginings. New stories were coming about!''
This fascinated the brothers. ''We knew there was truth at the core,'' Paolo continues. ''We knew the heart of the story was still the people who had taken their destiny into their own hands. But the events were also becoming fantasies and fables.
''So if you look at our film, you'll see everything is true, based on fact. Yet everything is false, too, based on stories and fables!'' This is the paradox that enthralls the Taviani brothers, in their new film as in earlier offerings.
''The Night of the Shooting Stars'' opened in Italy last fall to much applause from audiences and critics. The filmmakers weren't surprised that older viewers found it involving, since ''they saw their own experiences and emotions in it.'' But they hadn't expected young spectators to like a film ''about a schoolbook period that doesn't really correspond to anything now in their minds.''
What's the explanation? ''The film gives an artistic situation,'' says Paolo, ''which confronts young people with events that bring out their own emotions. Today's youth is melancholy, depressed, and uncertain which way to look. But we hope people will find the message in our film that they can do something about their future.''
''The Night of the Shooting Stars'' is not the only recent success from Italy to deal with peasant life. Other examples are ''The Tree of Wooden Clogs'' by Ermanno Olmi and ''Three Brothers'' by Francesco Rosi. I asked the Taviani brothers why this subject is so central in Italian film today.
''During the 1960s,'' says Vittorio, ''people wanted to change everything, even in cinema. This led to important research into important ideas, both in life and film. And this helped cinema to break its chains, to sing, to become young again.
''But the films were often too experimental and involved for their own good. It's best to take two steps forward and one step back. After going through a period like that, you must look at what you've done and clarify it. This is happening now, with films about life in the countryside and about the past.''
The Taviani brothers have worked together since the beginning of their careers. Their compatibility ''is like a chemical reaction,'' says one: ''Put two elements and two forces together, and poof! you get something new.'' Their films are autobiographical, in that ''we always begin with some personal sentiment.'' But as a project proceeds, they strive to incorporate as many elements as possible, including ones suggested by the people and experiences that cross their paths as they work.
After nearly 30 years of filmmaking, their partnership is still flourishing, even though the brothers have clearly different personalities, as well as lives and families of their own. Will they always work in tandem? ''After so many films,'' says Vittorio, ''if we divided and worked separately, it would be like starting over!'' Filmmaker's comic autobiography
Caligari's Cure is an offbeat comedy that probably won't show up at your local theater. It's too messy and personal and independent. And besides, its 70 -minute length would never fit the standard schedules.
But it's hard to dislike a movie that takes the filmmaker's own life - from elementary school through young adulthood - and turns it into a delirious farce, complete with slapstick and satire. Better yet, it borrows its extravagant visual and acting styles from the 1919 expressionist classic, ''The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,'' thus blending autobiography and film history with the stuff of sheer silliness.
The result is often rowdy and reckless, and lots of the gags fall flat or are ''in jokes'' to begin with. Yet the director, Tom Palazzolo, has unlimited reserves of good humor, and his energy rarely lets up. Two cheers for this colorful romp.