Frears, Steve Coogan and Judi Dench talk about Venice hit Philomena.

Stephen Frears may have wowed the critics in Venice with Philomena’s world premiere today, but he also has another audience in mind.

“I’m very keen the Pope should see it,” he said at a press conference in Venice today. “He seems a rather good bloke, the Pope.”

The Catholic Church, however, might not like the film’s subject matter. Judi Dench stars as Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who was forced to give up her son for adoption by Catholic nuns in the 1950s; Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the script and is one of the film’s producers, stars as cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith, who helps Lee try to find her son. (The story is true, and chronicled in Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.)

Teenage girls working in laundries for the Catholic church is a subject already explored in Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, but the story of the Church selling babies “is a shockingly terrible story and it had to be told,” Dench said.

The appropriately named co-writer Jeff Pope said that if the Church were to take something away from the film it should be “whatever has happened in the past, a policy of openness and honesty is surely the way forward. In a small way that’s what the film is saying.”

Pope added: “We were very careful not to judge what happened in the 1950s by modern standards. The bigger wrong was the covering up of what had happened. It’s not trying to hammer the church for 50 years ago.”

Coogan said that during the writing process they were sensitive to people who have faith such as Lee. “Although it criticizes the way the institution behaves, it dignifies people who have simple faith,” he said.

Despite the heavy topics being explored, there are quite a few laughs in the film. Coogan said: “It needed comedy because the story itself was so sad…humour was important to lighten the mood and sugar the pill…it was an important balance to strike, you couldn’t let the comedy trivialize it, but it could give it some levity.”

That laughter is something the real Philomena Lee would appreciate. Dench said Lee is “an immensely funny person, and incredibly lively…we have a similar sense of humour.”

After meeting Lee four or five times, Dench says she hopes she captured the “essence” of her – “there’s such a responsibility telling the story of someone who is still alive.”