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Church Attacks Italian Film

Italian director Marco Bellocchio, whose film "My Mother's Smile" explores fervent Catholicism, is defending his work against criticism from religious authorities, saying its popularity spoke for itself.

"The film has been well received and that suggests to me that it raises questions that mean something to the people who are going to see it," he told reporters at a news conference this week at the Cannes Film Festival.

"It is a film about authority, the family and the church, yes, but I don't think it can be seen as rebellious or anti-religious," said the 62-year-old director, who himself received a religious upbringing.

One of 22 films competing for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival, "My Mother's Smile" (titled "L'Ora di Religione" in Italy) is the story of an atheist artist whose family attempts to draw him into a campaign to win sainthood for his murdered mother.

Dealing with some of Bellocchio's long-term obsessions including religious hypocrisy and the selfishness of Italian bourgeois society, the film was slammed by Roman Catholic bishops who wanted it banned for its blasphemy.

The film contains little swearing, but at its heated crux, one of the characters screams expletives against the Virgin Mary and God, considered two of the worst blasphemies in Italy.

While a ban was never considered, the film did end up being hit with an over-14 certificate in Italy, which left critics concerned that it would struggle at the box office.

As it is, the film has become a critical and box office hit in Italy where it opened a few days before the Cannes festival got under way.

"I'm thrilled that people are enjoying it -- even if none of them are apparently under 14," quipped Bellocchio. "And having it here at Cannes is obviously a great showcase for the future."

Bellocchio is an old-hand at Cannes with "The Prince of Homburg" and "The Wet-Nurse" receiving screenings in 1996 and 1999, respectively, although without major success.

"My Mother's Smile," however, seems to have captured more attention this year, with critics impressed by its intellectual subtlety and with some comparing its film work to Italian great Federico Fellini, creator of "La Dolce Vita."

Another hit has been Sergio Castellitto, who plays the role of the artist, Ernesto.

The plot focuses on Ernesto's struggle to deal with the coordinated conspiracy of his family to draw him into the process of winning his mother's beatification by the Church, a process which requires Ernesto's support.

Separated from his wife, but devoted to their young son, Leonardo, Ernesto is forced to reconcile his own atheism with the fact that Leonardo is becoming increasingly obsessed with God.

Eventually he goes to visit Leonardo's religion teacher, whose exquisite beauty presents the brooding, troubled artist with a further dilemma.

Castellitto, a growing star in Italy who some have compared to Marcello Mastroianni, praised Bellocchio for tackling such tough issues in the film. "'My Mother's Smile' is a film that re-establishes the primacy of human relationships over any kind of religious dogma," he said.

Written By Luke Baker