For American movie buffs, the very word evokes not pasta and politics, but sophisticates and intellectuals - the marvelous world of a national cinema that immediately conjures up De Sica, Rossellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Pontecorvo, Fellini and other evocation names.

But for those of us who during the 1950s and the 1960s anxiously scanned the papers for notice of Italian films newly to out-of-the-way "art theaters" to see them, the present situation here is grim.

Indeed, while Americans were lining up for Lina Wertmuller's "The Seduction of Mimi," "Swept Away" and "The Seven Beauties" - among the few Italian films to be shown in the U.S. in recent years - Italians were ignoring many local films jamming their theaters to see "Nashville," "Barry Lynson," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Taxi Driver" and, more recently, "Marathon Man" and "King Kong."

If one considers the titles of many current Italian films, the growing popularity of American movies among Italian intellectuals and the general public is not hard to understand. In fact, a glance at movie billboards during much of the past year was likely to reveal an unappetizing bill of fare.

Soft-core low budget "sexy" films like "Bedmania," "The Health Service Gynocologist," the "Au-Pair Girl," "My Father's Private Secretary," "The Stepdaughter," "My Father's Wife," "Naked Behind the Hedge," "Woman Fever," "The Landlady," Ready for Anything," "The Erotic Wife," "Puberty" and "Bestiality" were there to attract the sexually frustrated and to irritate Italy's growing feminist movement.

A variety of detective films like "The Debt Has Been Paid," "The Antiroberry Squad," "My Enemy's Corpse," or "Italy Under Arms" were available daily for frustrated vigilantes, and the many brillante Italian comedies were there for those who are generally frustated and in need of, but obvious, relief.

Of last year's 200 films under (another 30 were co-productions), 70 were "sexy," 40 were police films, another 40 were "comico-brillante," leaving the remaining 50 to be divided among political, period and miscellaneous subjects. The breakdown isn't all that different from the past. "We've always produced a few good films and a lot of mediocre ones," says critic Giovanni Grazzini. "Lately, however, our bad films have gotten worse and the public has begun to notice."

In fact, the available statistics have begun conveying their message loud and clear. No only were there about 10 per cent fewer spectators in 1976, but tickets sales dropped off by a record 25 per cent even in the peak Christmas season.

Dissatisfaction with current home production is demonstrated in a drop in attendance; by the fact that two of the five big holiday movies ("King Kong" and "Marathon Man) were American, and by the growing percentage of box-office returns goings to American films.

Director Gillo Pontecorco ("The Battle of Algiers" and "Quemada") also agrees that quality has declined ("our 20 good films a year are somewhat less better than usual and the other 200 have become considerably worse") but says the fault is mostly that of Italy's profitminded distributors.

These people lack both initiative and imagination," says Pontecorvo, who after six years of inactivity is beginning work on a film about he Basque terrorists who assassinated Spanish Prime Minister Carrero Blanco. "There are plenty of good screenplays around but distributors and theater managers have tended to sacrifice the future on the alter of immediate profits."

He adds that the high price of tickets in frust-run theaters - up from 1,000 lire in 1960 to the present 2,500 lire, about $3 - is also a negative factor that encouraged distributors and theater managers to favor sure box-office successes rather than "less flashy but more culturally valid" movies.

Italian producers and distributors justify their behavior on the grounds that mounting labor costs and high interest rates have made it impossible to make a decent film for less than a million dollar.With almost a third of box-office returns going to the state in taxes and another 40 per cent to theater owners only earnings of at least $3 million will allow the distributor and the producer to cover costs. "If you consider that only about 20 Italian films released in 1974 and 1975 had grossed that much by April 1976, you get a good picture of just how things stand," says Luctano Orty, a spokesman for "Anica," the Italian filmmakers' association.

Aside from the imitations imposed by the general recession, which makes investment money scarce and encourages some people to ration their movie-going, another bit problem for producers lies in the gigantic fees that go to big name actors like Ugo Tognazzi, Alberto Sordi, Paolo Villaggio and Nino Manfredi.

"If it's Sophia Loren or an American actor who'll gurantee and international market it would be something else," says Fulvio Frizzi, the director of Cineriz," one of Italy's major distributor-production house. "Unless they'll lower their fees, we'll just have to do start doing without them," he added, pointing out that the public is beginning to tire of the same old faces.

Clanfarani complains, too, that U.S. distributors are too protective in their atitute. "If we're lucky, we will get 25 films into the U,S, each year," he says, "which is nothing compared to the 140 American films that were shown here, for most part in first-run theaters, in 1976."

At "Agis," Italy's national entertainment association officials representing Italian theater managers are convinced that the major cause of the crisis is competition from the "small screen."

"The cinema is suffering primarily from acute televisionitis," says Director General Franco Bruno. The Italian state radio and TV network broadcasts only a few films a week. But thanks to foreign broadcasts from Switzerland, Monte Carlo, France and Yugoslavia, as well as the now-legitimate local television stations that most Italians can pick up with a UFH antenna, some 300 films can now be seen in Italy every week.

But producers say TV is only an aggravant - that it is the declining quality of home productions that is causing a growing number of Italian moviegoers either to "buy American" or stay home. "I'd like to go to the movies, but there's really nothing to see" is becoming an evermore popular refrain.

This is not to say that the picture is entirely black. Italy's top director are still making films that receive a lot of attention. True, the only big cinema events of last year were Federico Fellini's "Casanova" and Bertolucci's "1900," both of which are receiving mixed reviews (as did Marco Ferreri's "The Last Woman" and Luchino Visconti's last film, "The Innocent").

Buit Elio Petri ("A Citizen Above All Possible Suspicion") and Francesco Rosi ("Salvatore Guliano)", "Hand on the City" and "Lucky Luciano") both made new political films that are not likely to be seen on American screens.Luigi Comencini scored with "The Sunday Woman," with Jacqueline Bisset and Jean Louis Trintignant, and, after five years, Velrio Zurlini finally found backing for the entracing "Desert of the Tartars," starting the film's producers, actor Jacques Perrino. "Tartars" is reportedly up for sale to a U.S. television network.

But the "crisis" - to use a favorite Italian word - of the current Italian cinema, has been taking its toil. This fail there were 60 fewer films in production than in the same perios of 1975, and many major Italian directors increasingly are being forced to look elsewhere for the money to finance their cinematic ventures.

Lina Wertmuller, whose films have received more critical acclaim in the U.S. than at home, has signed a four-film contract with Warner Brothers, Federico Fellini reportedly has promised to do his next film for Bob Guccione's Penthouse International Films, and Michelangelo Antonioni is about to start filming "The Kite" in the Soviet Union. Lilliana Cavani's ("The Night Porter") forthcoming "Beyond Good and Evil," and Friedrich Nietzsche also has substantial U.S. backing and for his movie on the 1933 burning of the German Reiohstag, director Guiliano Montaido ("Sacre and Vsanzetti") "has so far found only German and English contributions," but nary a lira from his native land.

With 513 million moviegoers in 1975, Italy is still one of the largest, markets in the world. But Carmine Cianfarant, president of Anica, admits that Italy's producers must change course, and he includes among the causes of the present crisis "a lack of lymph and a paucktyu of new ideas," He says other major factors - high productions costs, recession, television competion and increased crime - are also leaving their mark.

Indeed, since the boom of 1955 - the same year that the notorious Merlin Law closed Italy's brothels - move attendance has been dropping gradually from an all-time of 5618 million spectators to 544 million in 1974.

One reason why today's Italian films are disappointing, according to sociologist Francesco Alberoni still "all of a sudden, contemporary Italian reality has disappeared from the screen." Until recently, he says, nerealism (film likr "The Bicycle Thief, "Rome, Open City, "Bitter Rice" and "Two Woman") made Italy's film directors "this country's real social scientists." Today, he adds, most directors seem concerned with the past, with the result that "our cinema has become improverished, and we miss it."

Some students of Italian cinema feel that the initial grasp of reality by men like De Sica, Rossellini, Zavattini and Fellini was an outgrowth of the war. "The war destroyed everything and gave these down-to-earth men the possibility, and the necessity, of dealing with the pragmatic facts of life," says Mario Gallo. Later, he says, the basic Italian tendency to intellectualize and ideologize reemerged, crearting a barrier between the director intellectual and the average Italian's real life. But even if they agree with Alberoni and Gallo, most film directors here are convinced that the major causes of the current decline in both quality and spectator appeal are to be found in the serious economic and structural problems.

Director Francesso Rosi says "it's true that fresh ideas are neede to make a good film, but for such ideas to emerge it is necessary to provide young and new director witht he opportunity to make films! Like other directors and producers, Rosi favors a revision of Italy's current legislation which wouldincrease and speed up government suvsidied (now at 13 per cent of box office returns), guarantee easy credit terms at a time when interest rated have climbed to 25 per cent, stimulate experimention and facilities exports.

"Remember," he says, "that making a film is not writinf a book or painting a picture.Hundreds of thousand of dollars are needed and cost have risen so drasticlly that it is not surprising that the choice of subject matter has been affected.