By Jim Slotek
To Dust is an odd, sweet, dryly funny, existential and slightly blasphemous buddy-movie, in which an Orthodox cantor, grieving his wife’s death, seeks the help of a pot-smoking college professor to understand what becomes of a corpse.
What can I say? They had me at the premise (especially in the same week that I had to accept “drama” as consisting of proton blasts emerging from a young woman’s hands in IMAX).
But the eccentric relationship between Shmuel (Son of Saul’s Géza Röhrig) and Albert (Matthew Broderick) speaks volumes to the rationalizations and compromises people are forced to make with faith – especially a faith as deeply entrenched in religious laws as Hasidic Judaism.
When we meet him, Shmuel is trying to do all the right widower things according to tradition. His rabbi (Bern Cohen) is trying to convince him to move on, and fix his coat (Jewish funereal tradition includes the rending of clothes called "keriah"). Meanwhile, his mother wants to set him up with a young widow.
But awash in doubt, he has trouble accepting his wife’s transition to dust as the Torah promises. He has nightmares about her decomposition and becomes obsessed with the scientific realities behind the process, an obsession he knows to be sinful in myriad ways (even before we get to his study of a buried pig).
Still, as we meet him, he’s almost reflexively obedient to his rigid faith, up to the point of communicating with a female campus secretary by passing written notes back and forth.
But Shmuel is almost overbearingly single-minded, and Matthew Broderick is great at playing fearful characters swept up reluctantly in events to comedic effect. His private class tutorial about how pigs are used in comparative experiments to pass for human, and a brief, nauseating picture-show of decomposition, simply adds to Shmuel’s resolve – to the point that he kidnaps a farm pig and enlists Albert’s decidedly reluctant participation to kill it, bury it and check on its decomposition regularly.
“If you don’t, it’s just one more dead pig in the world – not even eaten by the goyim,” Shmuel says. (Some of the wordplay is corny – as when Albert tests soil pH. Cue the confusion as to whether it is “acidic enough” or “Hasidic enough.”)
Shmuel’s secret missions do not go unnoticed, particularly by Shmuel’s young sons Noam and Naftali (Leo Heller and Sammy Voit), who become convinced that their dad has swallowed a Dybbuk (a malign possessive spirit) that originated with their mother. In a sub-plot, they set out to perform what amounts to a self-invented Judaic exorcism.
Unfortunately, the more Shmuel learns about the slowness (and grossness) of the supposed transition to dust, the more troubled he becomes. Which leads To Dust – as buddy movies must – on a road trip. Their destination: a forensic “graveyard” compound in Tennessee where every kind of open-air human decomposition imaginable is set in motion and studied.
Shmuel’s eventual epiphany might not be accepted as kosher, and might even offend some of his fellow Hasidim. But To Dust is an unusually thoughtful rumination on death, the significance of our remains and how we should live life. Director/co-writer Shawn Snyder (of Reformed Jewish background himself) has created an uncategorizable mix of dark humour, heartbreak, existential thoughts and religious soul-searching.
To Dust. Directed by Shawn Snyder. Written by Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue. Starring Géza Rohrïg, Matthew Broderick and Sammy Voit. Opens in Toronto March 15.