‘The Sessions’ combines nudity and piety

THE MULTIPLEX, traditionally a hub of heathenism, has lately been awash in religiosity.

"Tree of Life" and "Cloud Atlas" alone count for six hours of spiritual noodling, and both take a back seat to the upcoming "Life of Pi," an ecumenical stew that draws from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.

The latter is very much a subject of "The Sessions," a movie that has become better known as a moderately dirty art-house film featuring Helen Hunt as a frequently nekkid sex surrogate who introduces a middle-aged quadriplegic (John Hawkes) to sex.

The sex and nudity (this movie is extremely sexually candid) get the headlines, but the movie's most surprising relationship isn't between the man and his sex therapist. It's the friendship between the handicapped man, a deeply religious Catholic, and his priest (William H. Macy).

"The Sessions" is based on the life and writing of Mark O'Brien, a polio victim who could move only his head and who managed to type with a machine activated by his mouth.

O'Brien wrote with wit and passion about his condition and his faith, elements that writer-director Ben Lewin emphasizes as he leads us on the character's journey of sexual discovery.

The movie is droll on the subject of a reluctantly celibate man seeking advice from a man who's taken a vow of celibacy, but serious about O'Brien's religous inquiry. He wants to know if his quest is sinful and if there's a difference between a sex therapist and a prostitute.

This sounds potentially dull, but again, "The Sessions" shapes its themes in an appealing way and keeps the script lively and engaging and funny. (It's a strange confluence of "The Diving Bell and the Butterly" and "The 40-year-old Virgin.")

Much credit also goes to probable Oscar-nominee Hawkes (previously nominated for "Winter's Bone"), virtually motionless here but able to express much through the twinkle in his eye and the inflection of a voice - he's entirely believable as a man who can charm women.

This is essential in adding credible dimension to the developing relationship between patient and therapist. Hunt's character is professionally insistent on keeping their relationship strictly professional and must work hard to control her keen personal interest in the man and his project.

Other relationships in the movie aren't as nicely sketched: Hunt and husband (Adam Arkin) feels like a missed opportunity to explore the no-doubt fascinating home life of a therapist such as this.

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog at philly.com/KeepItReel.

The Sessions

Directed by Ben Lewin. With Blake Lindsley, Adam Arkin, Annika Marks, Moon Bloodgood, John Hawkes, Ming Lo, W. Earl Brown, William H. Macy, Helen Hunt. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 38 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue).