If we could completely understand The Italians, maybe we could completely understand everything. We can't and we won't, but this should not keep us from trying, especially when the clues that surface are as provocative and beguilingly devious as Frederico Fellini's latest film, "Orchestra Rehearsal," now showing at the Tenley Circle 2.

In his usual singular spirit of ebullient angst, the incorrigible maestro has whipped a fairly succinct, compact and shrewdly inconclusive sociopolitical allegory set during one afternoon's rehearsal of an orchestra whose pell-mell plunge into anarchy can serve to symbolize the breakdown of almost anything. Even if taken as a comment only on the incredibly combustible state of modern Italian politics, "Rehearsal" has an eerie and disorienting impact.

Reputedly instigated by the murder of government official Aldo Moro, the screenplay which Fellini wrote with Brunello Rondi, finds him in a mood of apparent backlash. By and large, the musicians are depicted as thankless, gluttonous, selfish rabble; as provincial and self-pitying louts, malcontents and anal retentives.

The conductor who tries to bring order from their cacophony (Baldwin Baas) seems temperate and reasonable by comparison, and yet Fellini, perhaps fearing that the allegory would be too obvious and moralistic if it were too clear, clouds it up with shades of gray. Occasionally he shoots the conductor at his podium like something out of "Triumph of the Will," and at one point the leader brings his musicians to a halt with a cry of "Achtung!"

When he returns from a 20-minute union-mandated break, he is like Moses coming down from the mountaintop, finding all manner of idolatry and wickedness among the waiting throng. Their golden calf is a giant metronome, and they mindlessly chant the cant of mob revolt; down with everything, especially authority.

And yet the picture ends on a note of either witty or just mischievous ambiguity; order has been momentarily restored, and the conductor resumes screaming commands like Der Fuehrer. Fellini sees it all as a monstrous and futile game that is constantly going into overtimes. "Orchestra Rehearsal" is Apocalypse Deferred.

A better title for the picture might have been "Fellini Marginalia," since it is only 72 minutes long, was originally made for Italian television and lacks the scope and detail of most Fellini films. A brilliant magician's marginalia can be far more fascinating than the big fat statement of a hack, however, and like all Fellini films -- even such clinkers as "Casanova" -- "Orchestra Rehearsal" is an inescapably effective mind-altering exercise. How reassuring it is to be once more in the grasp of a master manipulator, and to be riveted by images that flow as naturally as water over rocks in a creek.

The one large pity is that the film is so maddeningly wordy and that, given the situation, most of the words are shouted. This means a great deal of white subtitle type cluttering up cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno's immaculate visualizations, and it gives the film a grating quality especially irritating during the conductor's long soliloquy, ostensibly being recorded by an unseen TV documentary crew that pops in and out of the movie. (One of the funniest lines, perhaps funnier here than in Italy, is the announcement to the orchestra members that "we have a distinguished guest -- television".)

But Fellini modulates the bickering with uttering rhythmic instincts, and he punctuates the talk with such keenly observed events as a somersault turned by a flutist and a visit paid the orchestra by a rat, who is chased behind a painting that sits on the floor of the ancient building where the rehearsal -- and all of the film -- takes place.

And then there is the film's one big photogenic wow, when a giant wrecking ball wreaks destruction of a biblical sort on one wall of the old building. After crashing through, silently and unmistakably Godlike, and one is reminded of innumerable other ingenious images in other Fellini films and how those images were propelled right to the epicenter of all thought. Fellini is our greatest living extrovert filmmaker, and there are no two ways about it.

Only about 10 minutes' worth of music is heard in the film, but it is significant as one of the last scores to be composed by Nino Rota, who did the music for all of Fellini's films beginning with "The White Sheik" in 1952, and who died earlier this year at the age of 68. There probably has not been a more productive and harmonious collaboration between director and composer in all of cinema.

Rota -- who also did the music for such films as Coppola's "The Godfather" and Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet" -- devised a hypnotic "Gallopade" for the new film Fellini film that has a plaintive joviality reminiscent of the demoniacally circussy "Passerella" that opened and closed Fellini's classic "8 1/2," a movie that is, briefly, one of the subjects the musician argue about in "Rehearsal."

Society's decline and fall have been depicted through innumerable other movie metaphors. Social breakdown has been symbolized as a hockey game, a picnic, and a firemen's ball, to name only three. Fellini's artifice seems painfully apt but not painfully pat, perhaps because he complicates it so cunningly and knows, usually, just when to darken and when to lighten. "Orchestra Rehearsal" is time-release food for thought, not very profound if merely taken literally, but spellbinding on a subconscious, sensuous plane to which Fellini is no stranger. It is his twilight zone and his Xanadu, and he remains the master of it.