"The Inheritance," an obscure import that washed up at area theaters last weekend, could be The Italian Answer to "Dallas."

Evidently based on a heavy-breathing historial novel, "The Inheritance" is set in Rome in the 1880s and depicts the struggle for supremacy within the estranged Ferramonte family, a small but impressively venomous nest of nouveau-riche vipers.

The principal schemer is a young woman -- Dominique Sanda as daughter-in-law Irene -- who methodically insinuates, ingratiates and prostitutes herself until control of the family fortune appears to be in her grasp. This fortune derives from a baking business founded by Anthony Quinn, the embittered, vindictive old patriarch. After marrying one of his sons and then seducing another, Irene makes her decisive incestuous play for the gruff old skinflint himself, who ends up as so much helpless sugardaddery putty in her daintily devastating hands.

The title itself seems like a funny misnomer, because the plot is activated by a disinheritance. Fed up with an alleged lack of respect and affection, Quinn's character, a kind of Baker Lear, banishes his sons, playboy Mario and simpleton Bebo, with pittances of 10,000 and 5,000 lira, respectively. His daughter Tata doesn't even rate a pittance.

Poor ignorant Bebo invests in a hardware store, which is run proficiently by Irene, who begins as the new proprietor's clerk and soon becomes the wife. Advancing step by step, she arranges a business partnership between the disinherited siblings, begins carrying on with Marlo and then sets her cap for the Old Man.

Three of the supporting characters are inadequately developed: Bebo, Tata and Tata's smug husband, Paolo. (Incidentally, I'm just guessing on "Bebo" and "Tata." The murky dubbing leaves plenty of room for phonetic confusion.) But there's not a trace of anything decent or generous in the lot of them.

Though far from a classy or intense example of trashy cinematic storytelling, "The Inheritance" generates an undeniable fascination once Irene enters and begins manipulating events.

For example, waking in the arms of one of the unsuspected men in her life, Irene discovers that he has died. Within seconds her panic is replaced by irresistible curiosity about the contents of his safe, hidden behind a picture on the wall. With a triumphant expression of relief, she extracts the key to the safe from one of his pants pockets and satisfies her curiosity.

As he did in "The Greek Tycoon," Quinn finesses the contrivances of his role with authentic physical authority. You're not quite sure what attracts him to such motley projects, but he never fails to make his presence count for something.

Despite a generally sluggish pace, the veteran director Mauro Bolognini also makes his experience count on a few occasions. For example, there's a peculiarly stirring moment in which the camera is trained on Quinn in the act of a solitary drunken dance; suddenly Sanda enters from the side of the frame and is enveloped in his embrace as he turns in her direction. It's one of those eloquent little things, a felicitous coordination of framing and movement, that even the sorriest pictures are capable of achieving and imprinting on your memory.