Cate Blanchett was marinating in a puddle of blood on a dirt floor somewhere near the southern edge of the Sahara. Brad Pitt sat nearby, slumped over on a rock, sweat pouring off him. The temperature hovered near 112 degrees in the tiny Moroccan village that had become home to the cast and crew of Babel, the politically charged four-part epic from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams). This place was seriously primitive, beyond the reach of electricity and, for the most part, running water. Air conditioning? Not a chance. Indoor toilet? There's only one: See the village elder.
To make matters worse, González Iñárritu, in his quest for supreme naturalism, had just asked them to perform Cate's near-death scene for the 73rd time that day. The pressure was off the charts and there was just one distraction powerful enough to keep the two actors from going completely bonkersâ€¦
''It felt out of control,'' Pitt says over a year later, in a luxurious, climate-controlled Los Angeles hotel suite, recounting the weeks he spent in a state of ''frenetic anxiety'' on the Babel set. ''I thought it was going to push me over the edge.'' Suddenly, the 42-year-old actor leaps to his feet to demonstrate that crucial survival tool. With a hint of dramatic flourish, he grabs hold of his belt loops and yanks his jeans up to his armpits, giving himself a deep-impact wedgie of what must have been the most painful sort. ''Throughout the movie, I'd walk around like this,'' Pitt says, thrusting out his backside and waddling around like a duck. It must be said that watching Pitt transform himself into an Urkel-like superdork is a sight so perplexing, it could divert a person from just about anything. ''You've gotta find things to make you laugh during the shoot. Cate called it the Hungry Bum.'' He pauses and chuckles to himself. ''When your bum's so hungry it's trying to eat your pants.''
González Iñárritu's globe-trotting melodrama was shot in six languages and on three continents. As ambitious as it is intimate, the narrative interweaves a quartet of sorrow-soaked vignettes: An American couple vacationing in Morocco (Pitt and Blanchett) are forced to depend on the kindness of strangers when struck by catastrophe; a family of Berber goatherds unravels after buying their first gun; a nanny (Amores Perros' Adriana Barraza), torn between work in San Diego and family obligations in Mexico, is thrown into an immigration quagmire; and a deaf-mute Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) tries to cure her loneliness by prematurely uncorking her sexuality.
Babel (see EW review here) takes its title from the biblical allegory, in which man's hubristic attempt to build a tower to the heavens compels a vengeful God to create a cacophony of different languages that stymie communication and isolate people from one another. Using this as his metaphorical jumping-off point, González Iñárritu tackles some of the most provocative issues of our time post-9/11: globalization, immigration, the spectre of terrorism. ''The film is about prejudice,'' the director says, ''and the dangerous borders and walls we build that affect [communication] personally. And on a global scale, between George Bush and the Muslim world.''
Mixing politics and moviemaking has always been a dangerous game. One false move can mean the difference between Traffic and All the King's Men. But González Iñárritu's single-minded determination about the project persuaded some of Hollywood's biggest power players Pitt, Blanchett, and Paramount's Brad Grey, who agreed to back the movie in his first week on the job as the studio's new chairman to take a risk. It's a gamble that's already begun paying off: González Iñárritu collected the Best Director award at this year's Cannes film festival, and the movie drew a raft of raves at Toronto. Now Babel looks poised to be one of this year's leading dark-horse Oscar contenders. And Pitt's nakedly emotional performance has placed him in the Academy Awards running for the first time since being nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1996 for 12 Monkeys.
All this comes at the end of a long, tough slog. The Pitt/Blanchett story line was just a quarter of the journey for González Iñárritu and the rest of the core crew, who crisscrossed the globe for more than a year, shooting under arduous circumstances. Dehydrated crew members in Mexico, for example, had to be hospitalized. Appropriately enough, communication was particularly difficult: The young deaf actresses in the Japanese plotline required a series of translations, from González Iñárritu's native Spanish to English, English to Japanese, Japanese to sign. ''I had three pains I thought were heart attacks during production,'' recalls González Iñárritu. ''To make this film was to give birth to a boy with four heads. Painful.''