The film "The Master" cast a spell on viewers at the Venice festival on Saturday with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a charismatic leader loosely based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Hoffman's character takes a troubled World War II vet played by a feral Joaquin Phoenix under his wing in this latest work by Oscar-winner Paul Thomas Anderson, director of "Boogie Nights" and "There Will Be Blood."
The film starts with Phoenix as Freddie Quell and his rapid descent into alcoholism and mental illness after the end of the war. He is rescued by Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, who vows to treat him as "my guinea pig and protege".
Although there are no explicit references to Scientology in the film, there are strong parallels between that belief system and Dodd's "The Cause".
"There's a lot of similarities to the early days of dianetics," Anderson said, referring to a set of ideas and practices followed by Scientologists.
"The beginning of that movement inspired me," said Anderson, adding: "I really don't know a whole hell of a lot about Scientology, particularly now."
He said he had shown the film to leading Scientologist Tom Cruise, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Anderson's "Magnolia".
"We are still friends. Yes, I showed him the film and the rest is between us," the director said in response to a question at a press conference.
But Anderson said the centrepiece of the film, which is shot with a 70mm camera giving it an epic feel, was the bond between Quell and Dodd.
"I think we're just trying to tell a love story about these guys," he said.
It is also significant that it is set in the post-war era when there was "a tremendous amount of hope but a lot of bodies in the background," he said.
Anderson added that he was surprised when Phoenix took part.
Phoenix said virtually nothing except for "I don't know" and "No" at a press conference and walked out at one point before returning and lighting up.
"I asked him to be in every other movie I made but he said no which is a bit of pain in the ass. But this time he said yes," Anderson said.
With its portrayal of the repetitive "processing" mental exercises employed by Dodd and his followers in the 1950s, the film itself acquires a hypnotic quality underscored by Dodd's passionate pseudo-scientific assertions.
The discordant string music by musician and composer Jonny Greenwood -- best known as a member of the British rock band Radiohead -- and the minutely-studied period set details add value to this impressive work.
Quell and Dodd could not be more different personalities, even though Dodd is also sometimes quick to anger when his movement is called into question.
In one particularly memorable scene they are both taken to a Philadelphia jail where a wild-eyed Quell proceeds to trash his cell and throw himself against the bars as a suited Dodd watches him calmly from the next cell.
But their relationship develops into a powerful bond and Quell becomes a faithful acolyte although he still struggles with his inner demons.
Cult leader or not, Dodd is genuinely concerned by Quell's fate and wants to help him attain "a state of perfect" instead of being "a silly animal".
"I think they identify with each other," Hoffman told reporters.
"They're coming from different places but I think they were born the same thing. They're both wild beasts. One of them has just tamed it and he's trying to teach other people to do that," he said.
"Ultimately he wants to be wild like Freddie is."
The film, however, ends with a separation between the two as Dodd's movement gains in magnitude, leaving audiences guessing as to Quell's future.
"The Master", which according to reports in US media cost around $35 million (28 million euros) to make, is scheduled for release later this month in the United States and Canada and early next year in Europe.