There are some nights at the beginning of summer when air is still fresh and crisp, like new footsteps in the first snow. Imprinted, but only for a moment. Until sun melts the snow. Or other footsteps cover them.
It was those images forming in my mind, while sitting quietly under the canopy of an early summer’s night sky that brought me to the last scene in ‘Map of the human heart’; Avik’s body splattered on an ice-sheet floating in the sea, watched from above by the young Avik and Albertine floating across the sky in a hot-air balloon, happy, in love, alive and free. The symbolism is as unmistakable as it is powerful.
‘Map of the human heart’ is New Zealand’s director Vincent Ward visually stunning motion picture produced in 1992.
It has been said that the movie is of race and romance. To me the movie is of signs. Symbols that, when deciphered, open before us a mystical map of human heart … of any race.
No map is the same, and some only tell us that we are lost. But they are always maps, as they are always hearts. Even the lost ones.
In the movie’s opening scene wild and beautiful Arctic landscape opens before us. An old Inuit Eskimo man tells a story about his life to a young, white mapmaker. In exchange for his whisky. And so we learn the story about Avik and Albertine.
In 1930s British cartographer Walter Russell visits the Arctic-Canadian settlement Nunataaq, where Avik lives his care-free childhood as the only grandson to his grandmother who wishes him to become a great hunter, an Eskimo’s man highest achievement. Avik is also half-white. Boy’s curiosity and intelligence prompts Walter to select him for his guide and when Avik insists on exclaiming ‘Holy Boy’ instead of ‘Holy Cow’ it became his trademark.
When Avik contract’s tuberculosis, Walter convinces his grandmother who reasons that they have their own cures, to let him take Avik to a clinic in Montreal for cure as the boy has ‘white man’s disease that must be cured by white man’s medicine’. While Walter undoubtedly likes the boy, it is the need to assuage his own guilt that prompts him take Avik to Montreal.
In Montreal’s clinic Avik meets Albertine, a mixed-blood French-Canadian Indian girl and two become inseparable friends brought together by their love for adventure and rebellion. Avik is as fascinated with various types of trees that grow in the clinic’s park, as is Albertine with the raw heart Avik stole from the kitchen for her as a precious delicacy.
Albertine dreams of her father who promised her a horse and had left her his hand-made map that shows his and his horse footprints. Albertine sings a beautiful song and tells Avik that one day she will be singing it on the radio. In the magical world they made of clinic’s bed sheets, Avik and Albertine exchange their deepest secrets and she shows him a scar on her chest where they ‘cut her open’.
They fell in love and try to flee the clinic together, all of which spurs Catholic nun who is in charge of the clinic to send Albertine away telling her that if she stops behaving like a half-cast everything would become possible for her. Everything.
Albertine leaves Avik her chest x-ray plate he once found in the clinic’s archives for her. In the years to come Avik will carry the plate with him wherever he went.
Avik spends such a long time in a clinic that when he eventually returns to Nunataaq and his grandmother, he is a young man who had to re-learn his own language and ways of his people. But game does not come to him as it does to other Eskimos and he is shunned by his people as being cursed. He started to believe himself being bearer of a bad luck.
Second World War is in progress and Walter returns to Nunataaq only this time not to make maps but to recover German U-boat that was wrecked off the coast of Nunataaq. Walter’s and Avik’s meeting is emotional for both of them but Avik soon finds out the true meaning of Walter’s mission who now works as a strategic planner for RAF Bomber Command.
When he hears the song transmitted by the field radio, Avik recognizes Albertine’s voice and asks Walter to help him find her again. He also gives Walter long treasured x-ray plate. The only thing he has of Albertine.
But Walter must return right away and Avik is thorn between his desire to go with Walter and his duty to his aging grandmother. When his people pack to leave their settlement where they can no longer find enough game, he is not welcome to come with them. Avik has no place to go.
In one of the movie’s more poignant scenes Avik is left alone watching a canoe taking his grandmother and his people away from him. Before he can lose sight of them his grandmother’s eyes show the decision she has made as he threw herself of the canoe and into the icy waters. Avik is now alone in the world of his youth. He is also free to cross to white-man’s world where Albertine is and where he can enlist in the war effort in Europe.
He manages to board the ship that takes him to Canada and eventually becomes a bombardier, flying Lancaster bombers over Germany. He became known as a ‘Holy Boy’ and his crew of daring young men is looking forward to their last mission.
Albertine works as an aerial reconnaissance analyst for the RAF and arranges their meeting as she understood who the pilot of the ‘Holy Boy’ is.
She invites Avik to dance-hall where he learns that she is married to Walter.
Despite her marriage, Avik and Albertine are drawn together with the same intensity they felt many years ago. Their consummate love for each other is beautifully illustrated by love-making scenes that unfold on top of an English military blimp and inside the hollow ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall where you ‘listen music with your feet.’
It is in those moments that Avik speaks to Albertine of his love for her and his desire for them to remain together forever once his last mission is over.
But Albertine tells him of her childhood dream to become a white-man’s wife and finally has all those things she always wanted, above all place in white-man’s world. World where she can ‘pass for white’ and erase all traces of her half-cast heritage and life of an outcast. Albertine can no longer run barefoot. Still, she urges Avik to live as he alone knows who she really is.
While Avik and his crew celebrate successful end of their last mission, Walter finds out about Avik and Albertine’s affair and arranges for Avik and his crew a suicide mission – a firebombing of Dresden. It is revenge by a man whose underlying sociopathic tendencies are hidden behind his dashing exterior. When Avik asks Walter why he must firebomb Dresden; a city of no strategic value, Walter admits that the real reason for the raid is to strike back at a girl in Dresden who once spurned his romantic advances.
Avik alone survives the raid by para-shooting from the burning plane. He lands in the midst of horrific human sufferings and for the first time becomes fully aware of the war’s horrors. Despondent with war, he flees to Canada where he works in Arctic’s oil-fields and eventually becomes an alcoholic.
While trying to tell yet another war story to an oil worker in a local pub, who dismisses him as a member of ‘lazy race’, Avik notices a beautiful young woman at the pool table and starts talking to her. Her name is Rainee and she explains that she has come to find her father and his native settlement in Nunataaq. She offers him money to take her there. When she hums the same song he remembers Albertine singing all those years ago, he knows that she is his daughter.
Still he discourages her to look for Nunataaq as there is no longer anything there. Eventually he takes her to place where Nunataaq of his childhood once stood and she understood that he is her father.
Rainee tells Avik about the love her mother always had for him and about great stories she told her about him. She also tells him that she is getting married and wishes for him to come. But Avik is once again agonizing between his heart’s desire to go and his fear of bringing a bad luck to all who come near him.
Movie then takes us back to present as the young mapmaker Avik is telling the story to, asks him why he never searched for Albertine after the war. Because he was not sure he could live again amongst the white-people. And Albertine could no longer run barefoot. She is better off without him.
In the movie’s last scenes, Avik is killed in an accident on the way to his daughter’s wedding; his body washes up on the beach at Nunataaq, a wedding gift still clutched in his hands.
Flapping of night-bird’s wings cutting the indigo coloured sky shook me from my reverie.
I noticed how stiff and cold my limbs are and how silence stretches all around me like a sea of pewter.
When there is no longer a living soul that remembers us for who we really are; the name of the village we grew up in, what colour was our hair, shape of our dimples when we laughed, smudges our tears left on our grubby faces, smells our bodies filled tents made of sheets with, stories we told and fantasies we made ourselves believe … it is then that our annihilation is complete.