I was not surprised to find Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master a stunning artistic achievement, and certainly one of the year’s very best films. I don’t find it easy to be objective on this topic, as I place Anderson (together with the Coens and John Sayles) among the greatest of American film-makers. But The Master also has much to say for anyone interested in religious matters.

Do note: although I include no spoilers here, I will explain the key to understanding the film, a key that many critics seem to have missed. (No false modesty here).

The Master tells the story of fictitious religious entrepreneur Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a mesmerizing performance. Around 1950, Dodd is seeking to convert Americans to the doctrine of The Cause, a religious/psychological system that helps clients rediscover past lives through intense encounter and analysis techniques.

The film obviously recalls the career of L. Ron Hubbard and the birth of Scientology, but it is of much wider interest in what it suggests about the nature of charismatic religious figures. This is true both of so-called “cult leaders” and perhaps of others who have achieved more respectable reputations. It is also relevant to understanding controversial political leaders and demagogues. Rather than focus on any supposed biographical links to Hubbard, I would rather see Dodd as a composite of dozens or hundreds of other spiritual heroes and villains.

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