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VENICE (Reuters) - Philip Seymour Hoffman shines as a cult leader in "The Master", a compelling new film inspired by the real life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard about how power and faith can corrupt.
The movie, from "There Will Be Blood" director Paul Thomas Anderson, has its world premiere at the Venice film festival on Saturday and with the Weinstein Company behind it as U.S. distributor, Oscar nominations look like a decent bet.
It was labeled "controversial" months before release mainly because of parallels with Scientology, a self-described religion followed by some of Hollywood's biggest names that has a reputation for carefully guarding its image.
Its detractors describe the movement as a cult, which they say harasses people who seek to quit, although the movement rejects the criticism.
Anderson confirmed that Hoffman's character Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic, charming and controlling man who leads a faith named "The Cause", was based on Hubbard, who died in 1986.
"It's a character that I created based on L. Ron Hubbard. There are a lot of similarities with the early days of Dianetics," he told reporters after a press screening, referring to the self-help system that Hubbard developed into Scientology.
"I don't really know a whole lot about Scientology, particularly now, but I do know a lot about the beginning of that movement and it inspired me to use it as a backdrop for these characters."
He added that he had shown the film to Tom Cruise, a follower of Scientology who starred in Anderson's 1999 drama "Magnolia".
"We are still friends. Yes, I showed him the film and the rest is between us."
Adored and feared in equal measure, Dodd is surrounded by faithful followers, family and wealthy patrons who are intrigued by his theory of people's connection to billions of years of history and their ability to overcome the beast within.
Dodd also claims to be able to cure illnesses, including forms of leukaemia, that go back "a trillion years", but when challenged by a sceptic at a party, he loses his cool and calls his questioner a "pig".
Through a form of hypnosis called "processing", Dodd says he can cure humans of their demons and bring inner peace.
But Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a hard-drinking ex-sailor whose traumatic memories of war and troubled family history make him volatile, violent and full of self-loathing, proves to be his toughest challenge.
Dodd's wife Mary Sue, played by Amy Adams, is suspicious of her husband's young protege, and tells him Freddie: "This is something you do for a billion years or not at all. This isn't fashion."
Anderson called the film a "love story" between the two male characters, and Hoffman said Dodd was "a reluctant prophet who actually wants to be wild like Freddie is".
Critics showered praise on the central actors. The Hollywood Reporter called Phoenix's performance "career-defining" and said the movie was about much more than the parallels with Scientology.
Phoenix was last at the Venice film festival in 2010, when his shambolic, bearded appearance on screen in the spoof documentary "I'm Still Here" was one of the main talking points and raised questions about his ability to carry on acting.
In his first dramatic role since "Two Lovers" in 2008, the 37-year-old American is well cast as the explosive, unpredictable Freddie.
Using paint thinner, chemicals and torpedo fuel to produce homemade liquor, he stumbles through life until he meets Dodd, who takes him under his wing and brings back a sense of self-worth to a man adrift and in need of love.
True to his reputation, Phoenix briefly walked out of the press conference in Venice, came back in smoking a cigarette and, when asked about his acting in the film, said: "I don't know where it comes from and I don't care."
He was later booed by photographers for failing to stop and pose for the cameras, although he did return to be pictured standing next to Harvey Weinstein.
Editing by Jon Hemming