Thoughtful and Sensitive
Albert (Matthew Broderick) is an embittered community college professor gone to seed. Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) a Hasidic cantor, who doesn’t know the difference. He thinks that any participation in scientific inquiry is sinful, but the recent death of his wife leads to a desperate obsession with human decomposition. Shawn Snyder’s “To Dust” is about these two men coming together.
Shmuel is very serious about Orthodox teaching especially the part about “dust to dust.” In fact, he becomes consumed with anxiety, worrying that his wife’s soul will be in torment until her body fully returns to the earth. At first, we might think that this is a film that pushes the line of good taste but it is actually very thoughtful and sensitive it the ways it addresses Orthodox Judaism. In actuality, this is a deeply mournful film that readily forgives its characters’ foibles and excesses. There are indeed some rather grisly images, including the archival footage from 1960 and some morbid nightmare sequences, but they are always counter-balanced by the human element.
Géza Röhrig is excellent as Shmuel. It is a quiet performance, but his anguish always feels very real. He and Matthew Broderick show real chemistry. “To Dust” leaves us with more questions than answers as it deals with issues of death and the afterlife. While the film seems to imply that the main character has achieved resolution and is able to move on, we are left with many unresolved feelings. I believe that this is what writer/director Shawn Snyder was striving for.
The film opens with the death of Shmuel’s beloved wife, Rivkah. Shmuel immediately becomes troubled by questions surrounding the decomposition of her body and what happens to her until her physical being is returned to dust. Unable to find satisfying answers within his Hasidic community, he begins a scientific inquiry with the help of Albert, a community college biology professor (Matthew Broderick), who is really only one step ahead of Shmuel in researching the forensics. The two men embarks on a series of scientific experiments, both horrific and humorous, to try and approximate the disintegration of Rivkah’s body.
The film is also a very realistic depiction of bereavement and mourning and it is heartening to see a Hasidic man portrayed as so deeply loving his wife. In one scene, after being encouraged by his mother to begin to clean out Rivkah’s closet, Shmuel caresses Rivkah’s clothing and wig as if she is still alive. Shmuel is haunted by nightmares of Rivkah corpse decaying, but he is most troubled by thoughts that she is suffering as a “lost soul.”
The seriousness of loss is balanced by the antics of Shmuel and Albert. Each must learn a little about the other’s way of lifegiving us some very comedic interactions. They also clandestinely act as undertakers for a pig that they bury for comparison purposes. Broderick’s character is almost carried away in Shmuel’s quest, feeling compassion for his grief, while at a loss to really help him.
Shmuel’s two sons have to struggle to deal with their father’s consuming grief and inattentiveness and begin to believe, influenced by community rumors, that he has a dybbuk of Rivkah inside him. (A dybbuk is a malicious possessing spirit of the dislocated soul of a dead person), and the sons attempt an exorcism while Shmuel is sleeping, providing for some comedic relief.
The humor in “To Dust” serves to mark the true feelings of sorrow that surround the loss of a loved one. Director Snyder does a good job of walking the line between the two and leaving the audience just unsettled enough to have a fulfilling viewing experience. Geza Rohrig carries the film with an authentic, moving portrayal. We are immediately swept up alongside Albert in hoping Shmuel will find the answers he is searching for.