CAPSULE: BIG RIVER MAN (2009)

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DIRECTED BY: John Maringouin, Molly Lynch

FEATURING: Martin Strel, Borut Strel

PLOT: Slovenian Martin Strel is 53, overweight, and a functional alcoholic; he’s also the world’s greatest endurance swimmer, and this documentary follows his attempt to set a new world record by swimming the entire length of the Amazon River.

Still from Big River Man (2009)

COMMENTS: I’ll save you a quick trip to Wikipedia: as unlikely as it seems, Martin Strel is real. Watching Big River Man, you may assume it must be a mockumentary; it doesn’t seem possible that such a character could exist. For one thing, how can he maintain his magnificently paunchy physique while swimming ten hours a day? (Two bottles of wine per night helps, as do healthy servings of horseburgers, when he can get them). Nevertheless, the record books show that Strel, who took up endurance swimming in his forties, has swam the length of the Danube, the Mississippi, the Yangtze, and, in his crowning achievement, the world’s second-longest river, the Amazon, as chronicled here.

Unknown to most of the world outside of swimming circles, Strel is a huge celebrity in his native Slovenia, where he’s so famous that (according to Borut, his son and publicist) the cops let him drive drunk. Before taking up swimming, he was a professional gambler, and when not swimming he teaches flamenco guitar, does ads for McDonalds, acts in Slovenian action movies, and buddies around with his pal, America’s ambassador to Slovenia (who looks the other way when Martin tells Borut to steal a bag of dinner rolls). Also, should he ever give up competitive swimming, he would to have a promising career as a competitive eater. Martin is bigger than life; he tests the limits of the widescreen format.

Documentaries are tough sells as weird movies. By necessity, they are always based in reality. The best they can do is to explore an eccentric topic, and sometimes play around with the form. Big River Man definitely profiles an odd subject in Martin Strel, who is even stranger than he sounds on page. There’s a sense that he’s not all there even when we first meet him, and he only gets odder as he progresses downriver. He has to deal with the pounding Amazon sun, which forces him adopt an Elephant Man-style mask; parasites, including a fish that purportedly swims up the urethra; and, most significantly, his own deteriorating health, both physical and mental. He hires an amateur navigator, who gets infected by Martin’s insanity and assigns the swimmer a messianic status. Meanwhile, Borut tries to hold the expedition together and keep his father alive. The co-directors capture a bit of Martin’s madness with some well-crafted montages, and even include a dose of psychedelic imagery, something rarely seen in documentaries. Also of note is an eclectic soundtrack that steers away from South American music in favor of classical selections and a sprinkle of tracks from the gravelly voices of and Howlin’ Wolf. The result is a trip downriver that often feels like a real-life version of a jungle fever epic. You’ll be left to wonder: is Martin Strel an inspiration to humanity, or just a man swimming away from his demons as fast as he can?

If you can’t get enough of Martin and Borat, the Indiepix DVD includes almost a half-hour of outtakes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strel is one strange duck, and you can only wonder that Werner Herzog, with his fondness for captivating weirdos, didn’t get to him first.”–Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Rory,” who said it was “definitely worth a shout – horse-eating Slovenian alcoholic loses mind whilst trying to swim the length of the amazon. Even if it’s not weird enough it’s a must-see.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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