NEW YORK — ACCORDING to the rhetoric of the 1960s and '70s, the ever-growing mass media were supposed to turn the world into a "global village" united by instant communication and a wearing-down of regional diversity.
The outcome hasn't been so simple. The spread of high-tech communication has been accompanied not by more uniformity, but by a fragmenting of mass audiences. Distinctions based on cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds have not become relics of the past - and may have acquired more prominence than they ever had before.
Vincent Ward, a talented young filmmaker from New Zealand, has long been fascinated by issues of social confrontation and cultural clash. His first major film, "The Navigator," explored them through a cleverly designed story about medieval villagers who stumble unintentionally into the 20th century. Played for comedy as well as fantasy, the picture worked unusual variations on the theme of strangers in a strange land.
"Map of the Human Heart," the new movie by Mr. Ward, is less fantastic but no less offbeat in its approach to ethnic and cultural differences. This time the notion of diversity is built directly into the main characters: Avik and Albertine, a mixed-race man (half Inuit, half white) and woman (half Indian, half white) who fall in love as children and never lose their mutual affection despite circumstances that keep them apart for years at a time.
As complicated as their own relationship is, their involvement with the industrialized world is even more knotty - seducing them at some points in their lives, repelling them at others. Avik is first attracted to white civilization by a British pilot, who lands his plane in the Canadian Arctic to conduct a mapping expedition.
Much later, Avik becomes a member of that civilization and joins its military during World War II, only to be so horrified by the Allied bombing of Dresden that he flees back to the Arctic and retreats into a life of willful loneliness.
Albertine's odyssey is shown in less detail, but it has dramatic impact nonetheless.
After her first separation from Avik, she meets the British pilot who befriended him as a boy and strikes up a romance with him, which allows her to merge with the white world and repudiate the "half-breed" status that has always been a source of anguish to her. Later she renews her love for Avik, but she remains involved with the British flyer and the warlike society that he represents. The movie ends where it began, with Avik meeting Albertine's daughter in the same frozen wilderness where his own trav els began.
As its title indicates, "Map of the Human Heart" strikes a parallel between the activity of mapping - studying, understanding, and controlling a physical place or object - and vagaries of human emotion that can't be represented by lines and markings on a set of charts. It also suggests the impossibility of organizing such transcendent qualities as love and loyalty in terms of possession, territoriality, and other self-limiting concepts.
These are powerful ideas to explore in a movie, and at times Ward probes the hard paradoxes of the modern world - as when he cuts from a fire-bombed city to petroleum fields gouged out of the Arctic ice fields where "civilization" has chosen to make its latest conquests. The film has dull spots during its coming-of-age and falling-in-love episodes, though, and its flashback structure (as Avik tells the story of his life to an American mapmaker) is unnecessary.
"Map of the Human Heart" visits several countries as its plot unfolds, and the movie is just as international in its production history, with financing from four different nations and participation by an international filmmaking crew.
Although none of its performances is brilliant, its use of a multinational cast should help to market the picture around the world - in France, where Anne Parrilaud and Jeanne Moreau are major stars; in the United States, where John Cusack is a popular figure and Jason Scott Lee a rising newcomer; in Britain, where Patrick Bergin got his start; and in more places as well.
They haven't made a great film, but they deserve praise for taking on a difficult set of issues with thoughtfulness and sincerity.
* "Map of the Human Heart" has an R rating. It contains vulgar language, scenes of illness and medical treatment, some terribly violent images of war, and an explicit sex scene.