The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Paul Verhoeven and Jesus Christ: The ultimate buddy movie?

April 13, 2010 | 11:57 am

When it comes to giving great interviews, there aren't many filmmakers who can hold a candle to Werner Herzog and Paul Verhoeven, who make most American directors sound like the Katzenjammer Kids. The last time I talked to Verhoeven, the mad Dutch genius behind such provocative films as "The Fourth Man," "Robocop," "Basic Instinct" and "Black Book" (as well as the infamous train wreck "Showgirls") casually let it drop that he was working on a scholarly treatise about Jesus Christ that he hoped he could someday turn into a film.

I confess that I thought he might be putting me on. But he wasn't. The 71-year-old director is already out on the interview circuit, talking about the new book, "Jesus of Nazareth," which chronicles Jesus as a historical figure and -- according to this interview with Verhoeven in New York magazine -- casts doubt on such biblical marvels as the tale of Jesus walking on the water and the Resurrection. As Verhoeven puts it, Jesus may not have been the son of God, but he was a hugely arresting political figure in his time:

"Jesus was a human being, bound by history and the natural world; an extraordinary man, to be sure, but still a man. Jesus may have had an immense sense of importance or destiny, but he never claimed to be the Son of God. ... The Romans saw him as an insurrectionist, what today is often called a terrorist. It is very likely there were 'wanted' posters of him on the gates of Jerusalem. He was dangerous because he was proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven, but this wasn't the Kingdom of Heaven as we think of it now, some spectral thing in the future, up in the sky. For Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven was a very tangible thing. Something that was already present on Earth, in the same way that Che Guevara proclaimed Marxism as the advent of world change. If you were totalitarian rulers, running an occupation like the Romans, this was troubling talk, and that's why Jesus was killed."

Verhoeven is self-aware enough to know that the odds of making a film out of such a knotty, not to mention potentially controversial, take on Jesus are pretty slim. But he's clearly fighting against being cast -- as he is in Hollywood -- as the perpetrator of what the magazine calls "the most famous crotch shot in the history of cinema." Asked why he wrote such a dense historical book, he retorted: "You mean when I'm supposed to be spending all my time making another version of 'Total Recall'?"

I hope Verhoeven finds some madcap financier who's willing to bankroll his Jesus film. After all, stranger things have happened. It certainly seems pretty clear that he'd like to see a vision of Jesus on screen that would erase the memory of what Mel Gibson presented with "The Passion of the Christ." As Verhoeven bluntly put it: "If that's God, then we are really ..."