Dir: John Maringouin. US-UK.2008. 94mins.
If extreme sports have a Falstaff, he is Martin Strel, a Slovenian who has set world records for marathon endurance swims, often achieved while drunk. Strel is a big (and big-bellied) man who swims the length of big rivers. Big River Man is as odd as hybrids come, a documentary of comic moralism. Its very oddity could find it multiple niches in art houses, on midnight programs, on public television, and on sports channels. Sports fans who didn’t get enough of Michael Phelps and the Olympics could now have a new hero.
Big River Man follows Strel as he and his English-speaking son/manager Borut Strel decide to swim the Amazon, in the name of protecting the river and the vast forest around it that shrinks every day from human predation.
Before that ordeal, director John Maringouin visits Strel’s native Slovenia, where the affable man is known to all (including cops who stop him while driving drunk) and promotes himself shamelessly in everything from bad local movies to beer commercials. He looks more like an aging wrestler than a swimmer, and plays that buffo role to the hilt as he dines on his favorite food, the horse burger.
Once in the Peruvian Amazon, Strel the likeable clown becomes Strel the driven athlete. Despite dangerously high blood pressure and all sorts of natural hazards, he enters the water like a walrus in a wet suit and the crowds soon follow.
Marangouin’s filming of the swim - a Supersize Me of sport - is a marathon in itself, shifting between a chronicle of Strel’s hazardous journey (shot from a creaky rented Peruvian ship of fools) and a tour of a glorious paradise that is under siege. Doctors monitor his heart and Borut fashions him a white cloth mask to protect from sunburn, making the paunchy swimmer look like a sea monster from a cheap horror film.
Still, Strel perseveres, complicating the documentary’s moral message. The swimmer becomes demented, as does an amateur American navigator who guides him. Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath Of God comes to mind. Has Strel become a martyr to the cause of saving the Amazon, or is he just a self-destructive lunatic who’ll do anything for cash from his sponsors’ Is he a nautical Borat’
That ambiguity makes for some gripping drama once the laughter subsides and Strel, near death, thrashes to the end of his 3274-mile journey.
Yet the concern over Strel’s health undermines the film’s stated moral urgency, and becomes another excuse to postpone worrying about the Amazon. Martin Strel will survive, perhaps to swim the length of another big river. If the destruction that the film documents continues, the Amazon forest will not.
The Salt Company
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Olivia Newton-John Easterling