CALIFORNIA aside, there's only one way to find the meaning of life: You've got to book "A Passage to India." "Passage," British director David Lean's first film in 14 years, is a mystical experience, heightened with the sexual conflict inherent in many of his epics -- "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago," "Ryan's Daughter," "Great Expectations," to name a few.

Lean, who also wrote this screenplay, is one of the few directors today with an eye for epic filmmaking -- without models and rockets and mattes, that is. He uses a dizzying, sweeping, visually ornate style to explore a favorite topic: the clash between cultures. Here the struggle is between the British colonials and the Indian intellectuals growing restless under their prim, racist rule.

"A Passage to India," based on E. M. Forster's enigmatic novel, is set in 1928 in fictitious Chandrapore with its racially quarantined British quarter, an island surrounded by a profusion of saffron-and-gold humanity, painted elephants, jangling bells and screeching temple monkeys.

Australian Judy Davis ("My Brillant Career") stars as the film's repressed heroine, Adela Quested, a proper young Englishwoman caught between propriety and a lust for adventure when she travels to the colonial outpost.

Karma, human desire and ancient sensuality entwine in what becomes a romantic mystery of the spirit, a result of the sexually ambiguous encounter between Miss Quested and a young Indian, Dr. Aziz. Victor Banerjee offers one of the year's finest performances as Aziz, an ingenuous widower who courts disaster by forgetting racial taboos. He invites Miss Quested for a picnic at the caves of Marabar and is later indicted for rape.

The caves, with their eerie mirrored surfaces and roaring echoes, are at the heart of the courtroom drama that echoes the greater drama brewing among the Indian intellectuals who would soon rebel against the British Raj. What happened at the caves is a question literati have pondered since the book was published in 1924 and one that viewers will likewise ponder after seeing the inscrutable film.

The major brainteaser, however, is not theatrical, but artistic. Why cast Alex Guinness as the eccentric Brahmin Professor Godbole? It's British blackface. Guinness, a Lean favorite, is badly cast: His lips are stained purple and he seems to be parodying Sabu.

Otherwise, the cast is stellar -- Dame Peggy Ashcroft as the endearing Mrs. Moore, Quested's chaperone and spiritual adviser; Nigel Havers as Quested's staunch, conservative fiance; James Fox as the local school superintendent whose liberal-mindedness brings on the fiasco. The usual complement of classy Brits and a host of Indian extras add the final touches to this vastly enjoyable, sprawling entertainment. Lean truly catches the sunset over the British Empire. A PASSAGE TO INDIA -- At the Uptown Theater.