Washington's first Latin American Film Festival, a weeklong showcase of 15 features, opens tonight at the American Film Institute. It is designed to reflect the revolution in salsa cinema as a result of changing political attitudes in the southerly latitudes.

Representing eight nations, it is the city's most comprehensive Latin film exhibition ever, says AFI spokeswoman Patty Prendergast. This cultural coup, presented by the Inter-American Music and Arts Festival Foundation, opens with "Made in Argentina," a political drama produced by Rolando Epstein, who'll be attending along with a contingent of Brazilian critics and filmmakers. A gala reception follows the 6 p.m. sold-out showing, with margaritas and a mariachi band at the Hall of the Americas.

Epstein's movie concerns the conflict between political exiles returning from New York and those who stayed behind in Buenos Aires.

The festival continues with a second Argentine film, the love story "Sentimientos," screening tomorrow at 5 p.m., followed by the Colombian works "A Time to Die" at 7 and "The Arucaima Mansion" at 9. Director Carlos Mayolo will be on hand for the screening of "Mansion," described as the tale of "a mysterious house ... where no one commits venal sin" until a fashion model arrives and upsets the balance. Mayolo calls it a "tropical gothic."

Brazilian Sergio Rezende will bring his "The Man in the Black Cape," a biography of a newspaper publisher screening Monday at 6:30 p.m.

Selections from Bolivia, Jamaica, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the United States complete the program. All movies will be shown with English subtitles, and tickets will be available at the AFI box office at regular prices.

Plans are already under way for a permanent showcase, says spokesman Bernard Burt, citing Rita Moreno's commitment to premiere her new Spanish-language movie in next year's festival