SAINTLY WAIFS and boisterous whores, hair-tearing fathers and perverted sons, families at dinner and lonely artists -- these are the good, the fat and the ugly subjects of Federico Fellini, Italy's most charismatic and best-known filmmaker.

The American Film Institute is showing 17 of his films, which range from the surreal to the ribald. This Friday at 6:30 (and Sunday at 8), Fellini's 8 1/2 -- his quasi-autobiographical story of a filmmaker perplexed by art, women and a lost childhood -- kicks off the series. The other films are La Dolce Vita (Tuesday and Thursday), Fellini's Casanova (July 19), The White Sheik and I Vitelloni (July 21), Nights of Cabiria (July 24 & 26), Amarcord (July 31), Fellini's Roma (August 3), Juliet of the Spirits and Fellini: A Director's Notebook (August 7 & 11), Fellini Satyricon (August 13), City of Women (August 21 & 22), The Clowns and Orchestra Rehearsal (August 25 & 27), Ginger and Fred (August 29), And the Ship Sails On (August 30), and La Strada (September 2 & 3).

Back in the free-films zone, Red Desert, the 1964 film by another Italian -- Michelangelo Antonioni -- plays Saturday at 2:30 and Sunday at 6 at the National Gallery of Art. "Desert" is the first of the museum's provocative 12-part film-and-lecture series (through September 20) "Figures in a Landscape." The series includes some rarely shown films worth seeing: Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass (July 25 & 26), Jacques Tati's Playtime (August 1), Bertolucci's 1900 (August 22), Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road (September 12 & 13) and Miklos Jancso's Elektreia (September 19 & 20). The films are screened in the East Building's auditorium at Fourth and Constitution NW.

The National Archives shows another rarely shown film, The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer's adaptation of Richard Condon's novel -- about a man (Laurence Harvey) brainwashed to kill the American president. "Candidate" screens Friday at noon, free, at the National Archives Theater.

The Library of Congress has set a three-theme series that shows films of Cary Grant, Hollywood films made in and about postwar America, and "Issues That Matter." It begins this week with three Cary Grant films: Mr. Lucky (Monday, 7:30), Destination Tokyo (Wednesday at 7) and None But the Lonely Heart (Thursday, 7:30). The free films are shown at the Library's Mary Pickford Theater, on the third floor of the Madison building. Call 287-5677 the morning of the screening for reservations.