Dir: Marco Bellocchio. Italy. 2002. 103mins.

The term "auteur" is not much used these days outside of ironic quotation marks. But it is difficult to think of a better description for Italian director Marco Bellocchio, now well into his fourth creative decade. The story of an atheist painter who suddenly discovers that his mother is about to be canonised, The Hour Of Religion has touches of Fellini in its anti-Vatican satire and dollops of the later Pasolini in its savage, schematic deconstruction of the Italian bourgeois family. But in the end it is more Bellocchio than either, and will appeal to cineastes in Italy - where it opens on Apr 19 - who will not be deterred by the over-14 certificate awarded by censors for blasphemous language. Fresh and uncompromising for all its lapses, the film should make waves at Cannes, where it is likely to be in competition, and may even be in line for a prize if the jury is in the mood to reward an old trooper for a return to form. It also has a better chance of getting a run on the international arthouse circuit than the Prince Of Homburg (1996) or The Wet-Nurse (1999).

The Hour Of Religion is typical of the director's oeuvre. Intensely personal, it is a dense distillation of some of the director's pet obsessions: the darker regions of the human psyche; religious hypocrisy; radical politics; and how to do the right thing in a wrong world. The story itself centres on Rome-based contemporary painter Ernesto Picciafuoco (Sergio Castellito), who supports himself by illustrating childrens' books. A freethinker with flowing dark hair and three days' stubble, he is separated from his conventional and submissive wife Irene (Jacqueline Lustig), but still takes an active part in the upbringing of their young son.

One day, a cardinal's secretary informs Ernesto that his mother, who was murdered by Ernesto's mentally unbalanced brother, is being considered for sainthood by a Vatican commission. Incredulous, as he has no fond recollections of his mother's passive and manipulative piety, Ernesto is soon even more astounded when he discovers that his own family is promoting the cause in order to claw back some of the social status it has lost over the years. They have even come up with a miracolato, a man supposedly cured of cancer through the intercession of the soon-to-be-beatified saint. Meanwhile, Ernesto is disturbed by his son's religious persecution complex, and sets out to find his primary school divinity teacher. She turns out to be a stunning blonde who has always admired his paintings.

Signor Picciafuoco (literally "set on fire") wanders in a daze from one odd encounter to another. A Vatican reception - in which a priest plays a Hammond organ while a fat lady sings - is stuffed with the remnants of Italy's former Christian Democrat political overlords and the hard-line Catholic aristocracy. There is almost, one feels, a touch of nostalgia here for a set of bad guys that it was so much easier to kick against. The syntax is that of a dream, with Ernesto moving through it as the dreamer, a less complacent but equally bemused version of Marcello in Fellini's La Dolce Vita. He is challenged to a duel by a cadaverous count, confronted by a giant idealised portrait of his mother and stalked within his own, palatial, sparsely-furnished pad by the blonde teacher, who may, or may not, have been planted as bait by his scheming family.

There are moments of weird hilarity, as when Ernesto meets an architect in an asylum who was driven mad by the ugliness of the Vittorio Emanuele monument in Rome. And sometimes the satire is a little too crude, a little too schoolboy in its anti-clerical gusto. But Castellito, who is growing in stature and range after appearing in the likes of Mostly Martha and Va Savoir! glues the pieces of Bellocchio's weird vision together. This is in contrast to Jacqueline Lustig as his wife, who gives an entirely stylised performance that jars with Castellito's laudable attempts to think his way into a difficult, opaque role. Pasquale Mari's strong chiaroscuro photography and Riccardo Giagni's ethereal soundtrack, which incorporates pieces by John Taverner and John Adams, contribute to the oneiric mood.

As often happens with Bellocchio, some in the audience will suspect intellectual hokum or ideological wool-pulling that asks "what is this man on'". But The Hour Of Religion draws us into Bellochio's parallel universe more effectively than any of his films since Diavolo In Corpo (1986). Whatever one's opinion of Bellocchio's uneven filmography, this film proves that he is an original who deserves protected status.

Prod co: Filmalbatross
Italian dist: Istututo Luce
Co prod: Rai Cinema
Int'l sales: Rai Trade
Prods: Bellocchio, Sergio Pelone
Scr: Bellocchio
Cinematography: Pasquale Mari
Prod des: Marco Dentici
Ed: Francesca Calvelli
Music: Riccardo Giagni
Main cast: Sergio Castellito, Jacqueline Lustig, Chiara Conti, Piera degli Espositi, Gigio Alberti, Gianni Schicchi