The Taviani Brothers’ “Allonsanfan” (Beverly Center Cineplex) is a lyrical, tragicomic homage to a lost cause in all its grandeur and folly.

Made in 1974--but inexplicably released only now--this ravishingly beautiful intimate epic not only ranks alongside the Tavianis’ best, “Padre, Padrone” and “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” but also affords Marcello Mastroianni one of those roles in which he excels, that of a charming, intelligent man driven to betrayal and hating himself for it.

An opening note helpfully tells us that it is 1817. Napoleon’s empire has fallen, kings have resumed their thrones all over Europe, yet one small group of Robespierre’s Sublime Brothers struggles on, keeping the ideals of the French Revolution alive in Italy. The authorities decide to free Mastroianni, one of its members, after a long imprisonment, in the hope that he’ll lead them to the rest of the Brothers. In white-hooded disguises like so many Ku Klux Klansmen, the Brothers very nearly betray themselves by kidnaping Mastroianni the instant he is released.

This initial sequence is staged with a swiftness and economy that is deliberately dizzying, setting the hallucinatory tone for what is to come as Mastroianni struggles to free himself of the brotherhood and its noble but self-deluding fantasies. After disguising himself as a hooded monk to find out how his aristocratic family really feels about him, Mastroianni dramatically reveals himself to them, collapses and is nursed back to health by his adoring sister (Laura Betti).


But the idyll is all too brief; his fiery lover (Lea Massari) appears, insults his relatives in Hungarian and reveals a cache of jewels hidden around her waist that is to finance a Sublime Brothers’ expedition to Sicily. Mastroianni wants only to be reunited with Massari and their small child, or emigrate with them to America. However, his past is as unshakable as that of a celebrated gunman in a Western--as unshakable, indeed, as the Sublime Brothers’ maddening innocence.

“Allonsanfan” is a contraction of the opening words of the Marseillaise, “Allons, enfants,” and is the name of the youngest and most quietly fanatic of the Sublime Brothers (Stanko Molnar). It is a film of glorious, sensual moments, expressed by the Tavianis and their cameraman, Giuseppe Ruzzolini, and composer Ennio Morricone in baroque flourishes, alternately amusing and sad but somehow always gallant. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Mastroianni talks his little son out of a nightmare by persuading him to kiss him, saying that will turn him from toad to prince; in reality, Mastroianni is progressing morally in the opposite direction.

At once graceful and poignant, “Allonsanfan” proceeds swiftly to its climax on a plain in Sicily with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. But in their wisdom, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani do not judge Mastroianni’s increasingly desperate aristocrat but instead invite us to see ourselves in his predicament.