Like The Da Vinci Code before it, Ray Loriga's Teresa (Teresa, El Cuerpo De Cristo) has drawn the ire of the Catholic Church from Madrid to London before the film - which stars Spanish siren Paz Vega as the 16th century saint - has even premiered.

Controversy, says writer-director Loriga, "is always going to happen with religion in this country".

"Most people who are talking about the film have never read (the writings of) Teresa of Avila. Most Catholics have never even read the Bible," says Loriga, who describes his film as "a respectful and passionate portrait of a very passionate woman. Teresa was a hell of a woman and a hell of a saint".

Loriga originally pitched the film to Lolafilms producer Andres Vicente Gomez as "the Rocky Balboa of the faith". But, he adds: "People forget that Teresa was a woman and was made into a saint centuries after she died."

What is ruffling cassocks is Loriga's portrait of Teresa as a sexually aware woman. The film's backers are not exactly running away from controversy either: the poster offers a nude Vega in profile, embraced by a man's bloody hand. But Loriga says the sexuality comes from Teresa's own writings: "I didn't touch a word of the poems I use in the film, where she talks about being penetrated by the arrow of God and about the pain and the pleasure that comes with it." Loriga also says he was offered four times Teresa's $9m (EUR7m) budget to make the film in English, but "I was in love with her words ... it just didn't feel right to do it in English".

The casting of Spanglish and Sex And Lucia star Vega added fuel to the fire. "She's a great actress, she's a star and she's a woman everyone can imagine under her habit because they've already seen her," says Loriga.

Loriga had talked to his friend Penelope Cruz about the role before she signed on for Pedro Almodovar's Volver. "Pedro is so big you don't want to follow in his footsteps," jokes Loriga, who co-wrote Almodovar's Live Flesh in 1997 after the director let an option drop on Loriga's novel My Brother's Gun (Caidos Del Cielo).

Producer Enrique Cerezo picked up that lapsed option and convinced Loriga to make his directing debut with My Brother's Gun.

Loriga is currently writing a commissioned script, about a band, for another Spanish producer while he awaits the February 23 Spanish premiere of Teresa through Gomez's joint venture AZ Films. HandMade will offer invitation-only screenings at Berlin's European Film Market.

Plot: A provocative look at the life of the vivacious 16th century Saint Teresa of Avila, founder of the closed order of the Discalced Carmelites.
Budget: $9m
Producers: Lolafilms, Artedis (France), Future Film Group (UK)
Sales agent: HandMade Films International
Major territories sold: Former Yugoslavia, Brazil, Mexico, Peru/Bolivia/Ecuador, Venezuela, Pan Pay TV, South America, Greece, Portugal
Key cast: Paz Vega (pictured), Leonor Watling, Geraldine Chaplin.