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Big River Man

The slovenly 55-year-old Slovenian Martin Strel doesn’t look like an athlete—try a shaved polar bear—and he’s apt to gulp down whiskey instead of Gatorade during an event. But this bulky, unkempt gentleman is the world’s greatest long-distance swimmer and, having front-crawled the length of the Danube, Mississippi and Yangtze rivers (!), Strel declared he’d conquer the Amazon in 2007. Enter John Maringouin’s docu-portrait, which initially toggles between its celebrity subject’s larger-than-life persona and preparations for his biggest challenge. The “fish-man” claims he’s trying to draw attention to global pollution; his son Borut’s running commentary underlines how ridiculous Pops is for attempting this. “It’s like taking care of a baby,” he deadpans about his daredevil dad. “But one who’s your father, swimming the Amazon.”   

So far, so Sundance-approved enviro-conscious and quirky. Then Big Man River switches gears as mental states deteriorate; by the time both Strel and his hippie river guide become raving lunatics, the movie has morphed into a nonfiction Fitzcarraldo. What’s perverse is that it takes the “lucky” break of capturing bona fide insanity to enliven a typical look at colorful eccentricity (even Maringouin’s rote stylistics start mirroring the subject’s fracturing psyche). For better or worse, that detour into proverbial uncharted waters ends up hipchecking a by-the-book hagiography into the realm of compellingly cracked vérité.

Release details

Release date: Friday December 4 2009
Duration: 100 mins

Cast and crew

Director: John Maringouin