"The Charterhouse of Parma," a six-part drama of passion and politics in the time of Napoleon, begins tonight at 8 o'clock on PBS.

A charterhouse is a monastery. Parma is in Italy. The novel is by Stendhal. This film adaptation is an Italian-German coproduction starring Marthe Keller.

To come more or less quickly to the point, the first hour of this series looks like a spaghetti western, sounds like a low-budget Japanese horror movie and, on top of that, its story is mighty hard to follow.

A spaghetti western is a fine thing indeed, and Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" may be the most wonderful movie ever made. But that somewhat otherworldly pace does not seem to go well with long excerpts of narration taken from Stendhal, as we have here. The lingering shot of an actor descending a staircase lingers not for the deliciousness of the staircase, but simply because the narrator intends to go on a bit and it would not do to have the actor beat him to the bottom.

A Japanese horror movie, such as Inoshiro Hondo's "Attack of the Mushroom People," is a fine thing too. A clumsily dubbed soundtrack only contributes to the fun. But in "The Charterhouse of Parma," it is disconcerting to have the dialogue not match the lips of the actors, and to lose the slight German accent films such as "Black Sunday" have taught us to expect from Marthe Keller. There is a continual echo, such as the one present within the Lincoln Memorial, behind every word spoken in this film. The music, heavy on Haydn and Mozart, continues nonstop within, without, on battlefield and in the middle of a large lake.

The story line of "The Charterhouse of Parma" remained pretty much a mystery to this viewer after the first hour. It seemed as if Marthe Keller was somebody's aunt, was in love with him, either did or did not want him to join Napoleon's army, and was very pretty. The bad guy seemed very bad, but perhaps not beyond salvation, as he once rowed to the beautiful aunt in the middle of a lake to holler, "There's terrible news! O! O! Ah! The dubbed voice makes him sound like one of the Three Stooges. Napoleon has escaped from Elba! Europe is again in danger!"

After reversing the videotape machine eight or 10 times while viewing the film the general idea was clearer, and further confirmed from a large stack of press releases provided by PBS, from which it was gleaned that:

Keller plays Gina, Countess Pietranera, subsequently duchess of Sanseverina. The good-looking nephew is Frabrizio del Dongo, who turns out to be Stendhal's hero, and who is played by Andrea Occhipinti. The bad guy is his father, Marquis del Dongo, played by Hans Michael Rehberg. He hates Napoleon because Bonaparte has entered Milan, which is ruled by the Austrians of whom the marquis is a supporter. But by the end of episode one, Fabrizio has run off to join the French army anyway.

In subsequent episodes, Fabrizio completes his education and has many amorous and political adventures, finally becoming a reclusive clergyman who withdraws to a charterhouse.

A charterhouse is a monastery.