Big River Man is a self-marketing tool for the hard-drinking, overweight Slovenian swimmer Martin Strel, only it’s disguised as a global warming awareness tale of human endurance. But while this over-narrated, over-scored beauty of a film follows Martin’s attempt to cross 3,375 miles of the Amazon, it’s his relationship with his son Borut that stands out. Borut may narrate the film as if reading off of printed PDF files, and depending on where you fall on the lowbrow-highbrow continuum, you may find his vocal style to resemble Borat’s or Slavoj Zizek’s, but the son’s point of view seems to bleed into the visual structure of the film, rendering it a kind of cinematic love letter to his father.
In making Martin the muse of the picture, the camera probes his body the way a child gazes at a father: mystifying his strength and fetishizing his prowess despite any evidence of the contrary rooted in actuality. Martin is fat, often drunk, always inconsequential, and almost already dead. Yet his son’s gaze deposits a kind of investment for invincibility in the swimmer that becomes him—despite Martin’s disintegrating skin, failing heart, and the subcutaneous larvae infection in his brain.
In an illustration of how fantasy distorts—but also constructs—reality, Martin’s body increasingly breaks down throughout his journey. But his son, who is responsible for all the planning of the expedition and serves as Martin’s media mouthpiece, seems to see his father as some kind of Hercules. Father and son make a silent pact of derange-ness, defying doctors, common sense, and schools of piranhas to prove Martin’s impossible grandness. When it remembers that it needs to deliver its green message, Big River Man sometimes gets too didactic. It can feel, uncannily, like a mockumentary, akin to Werner Herzog’s Incident at Loch Ness, as you catch yourself wondering if Martin isn’t entirely fictitious.
The film also insists on creating artificial drama where there is plenty organically. The gorgeously shot scenes of the river and its surroundings could have done without the conventional effect music (Maria Callas galore). I will go out on a limb and say there are more than just a couple of interesting sounds to be found by the Amazon river which could have been used instead of claimed-by-reality-TV arias.