By Leslie C. Halpern
It’s not every day that you can see a movie entirely about death without one drop of blood spilled. In fact, To Dust offers something else you’d never expect in a drama that examines a Hasidic Jew’s slow acceptance of his young wife’s death after intensely studying physical decomposition of dying bodies – humor, of the laugh-out-loud variety.
We have screenwriters Shawn Snyder (who also directed the film) and Jason Begue to thank for that, as well as actor Matthew Broderick, who fully delivers the comedic goods as Albert, a burned-out community college biology professor. Albert and Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) are from two entirely different cultures and of two vastly dissimilar mindsets. The only thing they have in common is currently a lack of purpose.
Wife’s Death from Cancer
Shmuel is too distraught over his wife’s death from cancer to focus on his cantorial work at the local synagogue or to properly father his two young sons. After enduring horrible nightmares in which he sees parts of her body decaying, Shmuel becomes obsessed with learning how bodies actually decompose, as he’s convinced that her soul is suffering until her body returns to dust. That’s when he seeks help from a contentious coffin salesman and then Albert, whom Shmuel inaccurately presumes to be an expert on the subject.
Lonely and unhappy with his job, Albert at first dismisses Shmuel as a husband driven mad by grief, which, of course, he is. But there’s something about his quest for scientific knowledge that intrigues Albert as opposed to the bored, disinterested students he teaches five days a week. So they form a reluctant bond that begins with book research and progresses to absurd “clinical trials” and “field experiments” that become more gruesome (and illegal) each time.
Humor Keeps Things Light
Although the dream sequences and experiments can be quite disturbing, the humor throughout the film keeps things from getting too heavy or depressing. Shmuel repeatedly calls Albert a scientist, and Albert frequently refers to Shmuel as a rabbi. Neither is correct, and it shows how little they understand the world of the other. In addition, Shmuel’s two sons are convinced their mother’s ghost has entered their father’s body and is directing his increasingly odd behavior. Their obsession about exorcizing the “dybbuk” (ghost) from their father parallels Shmuel’s single-mindedness about the decomposition of his wife’s body.
The macabre theme of this film (and its focus on Hasidic Judaism) likely will prevent it from appealing to a mass audience, and something this dark almost needs to be accompanied by a Trigger Alert. Nonetheless this is a well-made film with a clever script and delightful acting that promises to be unlike anything you’ve seen before at the cinema.
A Hasidic cantor mourns his young wife’s death by obsessing over the details of her body’s decay.
- Stars: Geza Rohrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, Leo Heller, Janet Sarno
- Director: Shawn Snyder
- Writers: Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue
- Genre: Dramatic Comedy
- Run Time: 92 minutes
- MPAA Rating: R (for language and some disturbing images)
- Additional Information: The director, Shawn Snyder is from South Florida, and this film opens the 2019 Boca Raton Jewish Film Festival on March 10th with the filmmaker in attendance. To Dust screens in select theaters across Florida beginning March 15th.
Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.