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Burgers and two bottles of wine a day might not have been the best training diet.

3 out of 4 stars


Big River Man

  • Directed by John Maringouin
  • With Martin Strel, Borut Strel and Matthew Mohlke
  • Classification: 14A

Borat meets Heart of Darkness in Big River Man , an odd and irresistible documentary about Slovenian strongman Martin Strel and his quest, at 52, to be the first man to swim 5,268 kilometres of the Amazon River, a distance greater than crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

American director John Maringouin's film is at once a portrait of a larger-than-life buffoon and a harrowing survival story. Though Big River Man sounds like a subject appropriate to a Werner Herzog film, Maringouin's focus is more about humanity than nature, and the film pivots around the affectionate, complex relationship between Strel and his son Borut, who works as his manager-publicist.

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Borut also serves as the often unintentionally comical narrator of the film. The first jaunty 30 minutes of the film, set in the summer and fall of 2006, establish Martin as a famous endurance swimmer and comic Slovenian hero with a pot belly and fondness for two bottles of wine a day with plenty of burgers. Policemen allow him to drive drunk and park where he wants. He has a lifetime pass to Europe's largest water park, where he trains five hours a day, with lots of time out for playing with children and using the water slide.

Still, Strel is no pretender. Having taken up ultra-marathon swimming at 45 - after a career as a professional gambler and flamenco guitar teacher - he managed to swim the Danube, Yangtze and Mississippi rivers before deciding to take on the Amazon. The latter proves a particular risky mission, in part because of Martin's dangerously high blood pressure, not to mention the river's sunken trees, whirlpools, snakes, crocodiles, parasites, piranhas and tiny "penis fish," which have been known to embed themselves in the urethra.

From the jaunty tone of the film's first 30 minutes chronicling Strel's lead-up to the big swim, the film's mood changes suddenly when it comes time for the swimmer to dive into the brown waters, in February, 2007. As we see his head bobbing up and down ahead of the boat, the ominous, throbbing score (by Rich Ragsdale) begins to kick in. Borut reports that, while swimming, Strel begins telling his son stories he never told him before, including how his own father beat him regularly and forced him to sleep in the barn. Once, he spent a long time swimming in a river to avoid his father, who was ready to beat him.

Within days, Strel is already in trouble, suffering from a strained shoulder, severe sunburn and dehydration, not helped by his habit of slaking his thirst with beer. As the journey continues, things get progressively worse and more absurd. Dressed in a white mask to protect himself from the sun, Strel terrifies aboriginals along the shore. He begins to hallucinate and swim drunk. Strel's doctor warns that he's on the verge of a stroke or heart attack, and that he has parasites in his lungs. All the time, his son, Borut, continues conducting phone interviews with news agencies, pretending to be his father, sounding clear-headed and optimistic.

Meanwhile, Martin's increasingly panicked navigator Matt Mohlke, whose only previous work experience was collecting stray carts at a Wisconsin supermarket, begins to confuse Martin with Jesus, and believes they're floating on a river through purgatory. By the time Martin and Matt disappear - and are later found wandering naked on a sand bar - you know the ride's getting serious.

Throughout, Big River Man maintains a potent dynamic rhythm, alternating between scenic glories of the Amazon by day and the fear-filled interior of the boat at night. The only misstep in the film is Maringouin's ill-advised attempt to represent, through smeary montage, Martin's delirious state in a sequence that looks like a sixties' movie impression of a bad drug trip. The very attempt to represent Strel's mind feels like a contradiction of the film's central achievement, which is to lead us to the edge of the imponderable. The mystery of Martin Strel's epic swim lies deep in his mind, a place infinitely murkier and more unfathomable than the giant rivers in which he swims.

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Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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