The death that opens Francesco Rosi's "Three Brothers" is the natural passing of an old peasant woman, but it is not the less felt for being understood as the mildest working of God's will.

A scene in which the elderly widower thinks he sees his cheerful wife on a familar country lane, only to have her vanish as he approaches, is a poignantly cinematic representation of the essence of bereavement.

But the woman's sons, the three brothers who return to their unchanged rural home for her funeral, live in modern urban Italy, where life's expected cycle is always in danger of being broken by violence.

The eldest (played by Philippe Noiret), a judge in Rome, has almost reconciled himself, but not his wife, to the idea that terrorist threats are a part of his occupation.

The middle brother (Vittorio Mezzogiorno), who works in Naples with delinquent children, is used to police reports that his charges routinely escape from his benevolent vigilance.

And the youngest (Michele Placido), raw from a marital separation, debates the usefulness of beatings as a tactic of redress for his coworkers in a Turin factory.

The brothers' lives are sketched in brief scenes and dream sequences; but they also are shown confronting one another with their differing views of Italian society. Theoretical discussions are a rarity in films, where characters generally confine their thinking to reactions and plans pertaining to their immediate situations.

And yet this is a gently emotional, rather than intellectual, film. The father slips in and out of his pastoral past, while the sons fight with their fears of the future. As an evocation of the forces of change, natural and otherwise, it is quite beautiful. THREE BROTHERS -- At the K-B Fine Arts and Outer Circle.