The film The Master kept viewers spellbound 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 religion and Dodd's "The Cause".
According to a report by online news site The Daily Beast last month, Anderson freely admits the film is inspired by Hubbard.
But Anderson insisted his film was in no way intended as a biography, reportedly saying: "I was naive. I should have known that's what people would latch onto."
With its portrayal of the repetitive "processing" mental exercises employed by Dodd and his followers in the 1940s and 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 Dodd watches 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".
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 is being distributed by the Weinstein Company and is scheduled for release later this month in the US and Canada.