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.
In this latest work by Oscar-winner Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, Hoffman's character, Lancaster Dodd, takes troubled World War II veteran Freddie Quell, played by a feral Joaquin Phoenix, under his wing.
The film opens with Quell on a rapid descent into alcoholism and mental illness after the end of the war before he is rescued by 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 online news site The Daily Beast, Anderson admits the film is inspired by Hubbard but insists it is in no way intended as a biography, saying: "I was naive. I should have known that's what people would latch on to."
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 the leader's passionate pseudo-scientific assertions.
The discordant string music by 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 the latter 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.
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 opens on November 8.