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Antonio Banderas will earn a career-high $12 million to star in “The Body” as a Catholic priest on a special mission for the Vatican. The film, based on a novel by Richard Ben Sapier, was adapted by Jonas McCord, who is making his directorial debut.

Financing is being provided by Behaviour Films Worldwide. Behaviour’s Mark Damon will exec produce along with Banderas’s Green Moon Ent. partner Diane Sillan. The film will be produced by Peter Newman, Greg Johnson and Rudy Cohen.

Banderas will play a Catholic priest sent by the Vatican to investigate an archaeological discovery that would shatter the foundation of the Catholic faith: bones that might be those of Jesus Christ.

McCord has written and exec produced such series as “The Young Riders,” coscripted “Malice” and directed the documentary “Vietnam Requiem.” He has tried for 15 years to mount “The Body,” long considered a strong script, but which came together and fell apart with names such as Liam Neeson and Richard Gere.

The $30 million film is on course for a fall shoot in Israel and Rome. McCord has surrounded himself with Oscar-caliber support staff in cinematography with Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), production designer Allan Starski (“Schindler’s List”) and editor Richie Marks (nominated four times).

The key to ending 15 futile years, McCord said, was the commitment from Banderas to step up for a gutsy role after a three year courtship.

“Diane Sillan and Melanie Griffith arranged for me to meet Antonio on a project called ‘Lost Steps,’ but it was a ruse to get us in the room to talk about ‘The Body,’ ” McCord said. “The role was originally written for an Irish American priest and I hadn’t thought of Antonio for the role, but when he talked about faith and how he became an actor after seeing ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar,’ you could see the passion in his eyes.”

The project seemed near a go a while back with Banderas and Kristin Scott Thomas, but it fell apart because of scheduling conflicts.

“Then when the film Antonio expected to do, ‘The Sin Eater’ fell apart, he came back in,” McCord said.

McCord will now look to pair Banderas with an A-list actress to play an Israeli archaeologist who makes the controversial find.

“It’s the dawn of the milennium in the city of Jerusalem, and the Israeli archaeologist makes a find that can destroy the foundations of Christianity and push the world to the brink of armageddon,” McCord said of the plot. “The Vatican sends the priest, and the more he delves the closer he comes to losing his faith when it appears the bones they found are indeed those of Christ.”

Then there’s sexual tension between the male and female leads. Swirling around the couple are assorted political and religious factions, trying to either hide, destroy or expose the possible discovery in order to manipulate the Mideast peace process.

“The Body” figures to be a hot project at Cannes this week, an effort that will be headed by Damon. They’ll also look to secure a domestic distributor, with Columbia a front-sunner, given it distributed “Zorro” and is developing a sequel, plus “Crazy in Alabama,” the Melanie Griffith-starrer on which Banderas made his directing debut.

Banderas, who’ll next be seen in the John McTiernan-directed “The 13th Warrior,” is repped by CAA. McCord is repped by attorney Kevin Yorn.

QUITE A U-TURN: While its $45 million opening weekend record figures to stand only two weekends, Universal’s “The Mummy” may trigger a turnaround that could demonstrate to Edgar Bronfman Jr. why studios endure losing streaks hoping to get on the winning track. Despite a poor quarter for Seagram pegged to underperforming movies and the perception that U execs are tightfisted until the new fiscal year in July, “The Mummy” and Eddie Murphy’s “Life” are first in a string of promising films that might soon make many forget that the studio’s recent string of flops topped by “Meet Joe Black” and “Babe 2.”

“Mummy” director Stephen Sommers and producers Jim Jacks and Sean Daniel will soon meet with U brass about a sequel, for which they laid the groundwork in the original, with a redo centering around the creature resurfacing in London.

Brendan Fraser will be courted to return. On course to turn in his second straight summer $100 million earner after “George of the Jungle,” Fraser’s price is expected to go from the $5 million he was paid on the original to $10 million.

All this is predicated on “Mummy” continuing to unwrap strong grosses, but another strong weekend and a few weekends as runner-up to “Phantom Menace” could put the film above $130 million.

U follows May 28 with the Polygram-produced Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant comedy “Notting Hill,” which is tracking very strongly, followed by the Eddie Murphy-Steve Martin Imagine comedy “Bofinger” on July 30, the raunchy comic sleeper “American Pie” July 9 “Mystery Men” Aug. 6 and possibly another Fraser-starrer in “Dudley Do Right,” which has a tentative late summer release date.

INDIE TITANS UNITE: Actor Bruce Davison has signed to join Jennifer Jason Leigh and an international cast for “The King is Alive,” part of the Dogma 95 series of indie pics that already spawned the Oscar-nommed “Celebration.” Kristin Levring will direct and Patricia Kruljer and Viveke Widelov coproduce for Zentrope.

DISHINGS: Oliver Stone’s decision last week to bow out of producing should have film schools flying flags at half mast. Aside from memorable pics like “Reversal of Fortune” and “People vs. Larry Flynt,” Stone productions employed nine first-time directors like Anthony Drazen in “Zebrahead,” Steve Anderson in “South Central” and Peter “Gaga” Antonijevic in “Savoir.” … Just as fighters often announce retirement in interviews done after tough bouts only to get fickle later, actors interviewed after tough shoots are doing the same. Anthony Hopkins, who reportedly quit last year, has the highly anticipated “Hannibal,” sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs,” being built around his participation. And though “Star Wars: Phantom Menace” topliner Liam Neeson reportedly quit movies, the word from sources close to him is: he wasn’t serious, so keep those good film scripts coming.