IT'S TEMPTING to add "Sotto, Sotto," Italian director Lina Wertmuller's modern twist on the ancient love triangle, to the recent list of gay-themed movies. But as usual, Wertmuller has more than a mere love story in mind, no matter what kind.

Though "Sotto, Sotto" translates as "gently, gently," in Wertmuller's latest fable of love and violence, the characters scream and slap, the camera whirls and jumps, and the plot careens through melodramatic excess.

Ester and Adele, two overripe Italian beauties, stroll through a statuary garden near Rome, trailing scarves and looking as gauzy and picturesque as a cologne ad. The two soon realize the garden is a discreet cruising ground for lesbians, and intrigued, Ester confesses to a dawning passion for her friend. Adele is a bit startled, but contemplates reciprocation. That evening, Ester confesses to husband Oscar that she loves an unnamed other. Jealous Oscar, who naturally assumes it's a man, must confront the incomprehensible fact that his rival is a woman, as he goes on a long, brutally comic tantrum of offended machismo.

As usual in Wertmuller's movies, you can enjoy the story for itself, but there's also a web of subtext. "Sotto, Sotto" is not so much about Ester's anarchic love, portrayed as a mixture of confusion and enthrallment, but about Oscar's violent reaction to the threat to his -- and society's -- status quo.

This is Wertmuller, and there is lots of lovemaking, and with it an abundance of domestic violence (the resounding slaps are overamplified on the soundtrack as in a kung-fu movie). The flavorful dialogue is somewhat denatured by the too-polite English subtitles, but the performances, all done con brio, make subtitles superfluous, with particularly vivid work from Enrico Montesano, who roars through the role of Oscar, and Veronica Lario as Ester, who pouts and quivers like a tear-stained Bardot.

"Sotto, Sotto" also provides an intoxicating, hyper-romantic tour of Rome, with moonstruck shots in midnight blue, and bedroom scenes in red, and nearly every frame symbolically speckled with artworks and picturesque ruins.

SOTTO, SOTTO (R) -- At the West End Circle.