"The Night of the Shooting Stars," a fairytale of wartime Tuscany, begins on the night of Saint Lorenzo, when falling stars make wishes come true.

Directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani mix metaphors willynilly: Mussolini with Pinocchio. And when they wish upon a star, the result is a beautiful, bittersweet film about a massacre and those who survived it in August 1944.

A narrator, Cecilia, begins to tell a story. She was only six back then. Her words are subtitles. Her memories are myths, transformed by time and retelling. But they come from real events witnessed by the Tavianis as Tuscan boys. Other stories and legends make up the rest of the thoughty but linear script.

The story, an odyssey, begins in a pear orchard outside the German-occupied village of San Martino, where an Italian deserter meets his pregnant fiancee for an emergency marriage. Cecilia (Micol Guidelli) and her relatives join the wedding party, which simply evaporates as the families hurry back to town. There, they wait underground for the Germans to blow up their homes.

When they are suddenly ordered to move into the town's cathedral, one man resists. Galvano (Omero Antonutti) and a small caravan of refugees slip away to find the Americans. Plucky little Cecilia has never had so much fun, but many tire and head back home. Others are shot by the Fascists: One feverish girl runs to them, imagining that they are Sicilians from Brooklyn.

The American saviors are elusive, always just over every hill, just a few days away. When a prankster plays a recording of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," one boy imagines the GIs coming. But Cecilia and another child are the first to meet the Yanks, two of them. One offers chocolate and the other makes a balloon from a condom. When Galvano returns with the girls, nothing remains but a pack of Camels. A relic after a vision.

The story is long and full of ambiguities. Yet the Tavianis' point is simple: War may be hell, but it brings out the most in a person, including actors. They speak of the ''years of diamonds," when the old order collapsed and brought freedom.

At the film's close, Galvano mourns, his great adventure over. As when finishing a good book, he feels empty. The leaden years would come, and like the Tavianis, he would savor the "one summer we learned that anything could be saved just when you thought that all was lost." THE NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS At the Janus.