(2008)3.5Nathan SouthernIf ever a subject were tailor-made for a documentary, the life of endurance swimmer Martin Strel is it. By now, the tale is well known and publicized: how Strel, a middle-aged, overweight, and out-of-shape Slovenian with a desperate love of alcohol (he consumes an average of two bottles of wine per day), insisted on becoming the first man to swim the full length of several of the world's longest rivers -- including the Mississippi, the Danube, the Yangtze, and the Amazon. In the process, he survived an onslaught of physical threats including bacterial infections from excessive pollution; the presence of pythons, anacondas, piranhas, and parasitic fish; extreme sunburn that turned his skin the color of charred bacon; and, eventually, fever that drove him to the point of delirium. Strel's point in undertaking these nearly suicidal missions was to draw the world's attention to global pollution and, in the case of the Amazon, to the relentless destruction of the earth's rainforests.
As directed by John Maringouin, co-produced by Olivia Newton-John and her husband, and narrated by Strel's son Borut, the nonfiction film Big River Man focuses largely on the Amazon swim, and finds exactly the right notes throughout. With the perfect degree of deadpan irony, Maringouin and Borut lead up to the Amazonian event by canvassing the bizarre yet delightful absurdities and wonders of Martin's life. Details include not only his swimming marathons, but his role as a Slovenian actor in action films (illustrated via hilarious cutaways), his penchant for driving while doing other tasks, his gifted hand as a flamenco guitarist, and much more -- all rife with the thrill of amiable discovery as the details unfurl.
At the same time, a profound sense of poignancy and sadness lingers just beneath the movie's humorous facade. We learn, for example, that Strel was severely abused as a child -- to such a degree that he now seems addicted, on some sort of pathological level, to making himself suffer via self-flagellating marathon swims. We also witness Martin's gentle, deeply moving relationship with the twentysomething computer programmer Borut, who has selflessly given up everything, including the bulk of his professional life, to assist his father as a publicist and promoter. These elements drive the material beyond the point of sensationalism, giving it weight, depth, and emotional complexity. And the film operates on additional levels, as well; as Borut none too subtly implies, the arc of Martin's life that we witness can be taken as a reflection on Slovenian attitudes per se, as a kind of broad cultural idiom. And the final scenes, which connect Strel's swim with the rainforest destruction (by citing heart-sickening statistics), also succeed at touching the audience in a gently persuasive way.
The movie nevertheless has a central flaw that holds it back from magnificence: Maringouin's ill-advised stylistic presentation. Especially as the story rolls on, it slips into a series of excessive visual devices such as constant montages, fantasy cutaways used to illustrate Martin's delirium, and frequent superimpositions. The impositions are particularly a problem -- they not only fail to add anything of real value to the film, but obscure the action onscreen as well. In fact, they look cheap and extremely tacky, and undercut the professionalism of the remainder of the film. Moreover, the cartographic superimpositions, which attempt to illustrate Martin's geographic progress on maps, are so unclear that the filmmakers would have done well to eliminate them altogether. Maringouin and co. probably grew concerned about the story becoming tedious and monotonous, given the repetition of the Amazon swim, but this is one of those rare stories which, at its core, is so fascinating that it simply doesn't need any accoutrements. Fortunately, the movie's strengths offset these weaknesses enough to make it genuinely engaging and intriguing.
Four-time world record-holding endurance swimmer Martin Strel attempts to swim all 3,375 miles of the mighty Amazon River as filmmaker John Maringouin follows him on every stroke of his treacherous and fantastic journey. Over the course of 66 grueling days, the hard-drinking, overweight, 52-year-old Strel draws on sheer willpower to accomplish his lofty goal as a hand-picked group of faith-healers, outsiders, and drunks cheer him along from the shoreline. The resulting film not only focuses on the trials that Strel endured on his record-breaking swim, but also draws much-needed attention to the Amazon Rainforest -- a landscape that faces an uncertain future due to the combined stresses of progress and pollution.