At least 20 years have passed since the great ''neorealist'' movement in Italian film. The idea was to bring a new and poetic sense of reality to a languishing and artificial cinema scene. The outcome was a great burst of activity by such fine directors as Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, who gave us such enduring classics as ''La Strada'' and ''L'Avventura.''
Today something like that is happening again. True, many conventions of neorealism have themselves been forgotten or become stale, as naturalism and humanism become an excuse for self-indulgence and self-pity. But a few directors are keeping alive the great goals of neorealism, and reviving them in strong new pictures.
It's not a movement -- on American screens, anyway -- since it only shows up in occasional movies by a handful of directors. Still, it's encouraging to see that these films get international attention from critics and audiences. Gradually, the deeply felt and simply humane values of works like ''Padre, Padrone,'' the recent ''Three Brothers,'' and ''The Tree of Wooden Clogs'' may replace the more complex but less profound cinema of such superstar directors as Ettore Scola and Bernardo Bertolucci.
This said, it's too bad the latest movie in the trend, The Meadow, isn't one of the best. Directed by the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani -- who made the superb ''Padre, Padrone'' -- it takes on too many issues and moods for its own good. It's an uneven film, with some rough performances and an awkward plot. Still, its sincerity and humanity are unfailing, and its compassion is constant. It cares so much about its characters that it makes us care, too. And this makes for a consistently engaging film, if not a consistently successful one.
''The Meadow'' takes no time to warm up. The moment the credits are over, the movie plunges into a confrontation between a father and son - no surprise from the Taviani Brothers, who plumbed such a situation to its bones in ''Padre, Padrone'' five years ago. The son then goes to his family's old stomping ground in rural Tuscany, to settle some financial matters and renew his roots. He strikes up a love affair with a local woman, who already has a boyfriend. They wrestle with their triangular relationship, meanwhile trying to live productive and socially meaningful lives. The affair is resolved in a tragic finale.
In exploring this situation, the Tavianis use all manner of devices, from naturalism to fantasy. There are subplots involving the jobs of the main characters, which make incidental comments on contemporary Italian conditions. Mythic images crop up, and the fairy tale of the Pied Piper is a constant motif. All this is combined with enormous warmth and empathy, plus the pastoral atmosphere that is a hallmark of the best recent Italian pictures. And on top of that, there are quotations from a 1949 film by Roberto Rossellini, whose daughter Isabella plays a leading role - a Pirandellian maneuver if ever there was one.
It would have added up to a great film if the Taviani Brothers had a better grip on their material, or weren't so eager to explore so many weighty matters at the same time. ''The Meadow'' is an unwieldy movie, made so by its own ambition. Still, its intentions shine through, full of intelligence and caring. Though imperfectly realized, these intentions place the Tavianis at the forefront of the trend toward poetic humanism that is alive and flourishing in Italian cinema.