Published Jun 04, 2009The man who holds the world record for long-distance swimming is a 53-year-old, overweight drunk driver and gambling addict from Slovenia, who set out to swim the Amazon River in 2007 to draw attention to rainforest destruction. But that's not even half the story.
Martin Strel is the kind of real-life character that would be impossible to invent, driven by an animal instinct and little concern for his mental or physical health. As his story hits progressively more bizarre turns, it takes on eerie elements of Fitzcarraldo or, more explicitly, Apocalypse Now; it helps that Strel resembles both Dennis Hopper and Marlon Brando from that film. But by the time his inexperienced river guide — who in real life is a Wisconsin Wal-Mart worker — starts believing that Strel is a Christ-like figure, the surreal has already become commonplace.
Big River Man is blessed with a character, narrative and setting that any director could make into a gripping film. Director John Maringouin goes several extra miles with grand cinematography and concise editing that distils Strel's complex character and his tragicomic epic journey with skilful economy.
Strel's feat was unheralded by Western media at the time. After this wildly entertaining and brutally honest film gets the audience it deserves, his quixotic vision will have been vindicated, although certainly not in the most flattering light.