For atheists death is a macabre subject if they fear oblivion. For the religious death is an inevitable part of life and nothing to fear because there is something beyond. Those of various religious persuasions believe that as the mortal body turns “to dust,” the immortal spirit is in the loving embrace of a God of light, forgiveness and joy. The conundrum occurs for the religious who have a crisis of faith: 1)in a loving God; 2)in a spiritual dimension beyond the physical plane. When that siege of doubt appears and embraces the coffin of a loved one as a cemetery caretaker lowers it into the ground, depending upon the ability of the individual to “bury” fears and doubts, death and the mourning process can be catastrophic. In the instance of the Hasidic Cantor, Shmuel, (played by the wonderful Géza Röhrig of the Oscar winning Son of Saul), death turns him inside out and upside down. And it is his “turning” that creates the wonderful comedic situation of To Dust.
Part of the charm of To Dust, written by Jason Begue and Shawn Snyder and directed by Snyder lies in the superb casting of Röhrig and Matthew Broderick. as research buddies getting a handle on the rate of body decomposition after death. Röhrig has the right measure of intensity and frenzy as he attempts to confront the stark and unsettling images of what has happened to his wife’s soul and body. She died suddenly and unexpectedly leaving him with two young children. Broderick is his perfect foil. He portrays the dead pan, unassuming, steady, science professor (Community College, upstate New York), who Shmuel seeks out for information about the progress of his dead wife’s physical decomposition. Clearly, Shmuel cannot confront the emotional impact of his wife’s absence so he obsesses about her burial underground. He worries that she must suffer for a long the time until she finally turns “to dust,” an injunction of the scripture. In his own logic Shmuel imagines when her body arrives at its final “dust” phase, she will have arrived at peace.
There is no reasoning with him that the contrary might be true, that at the point of death, she entered realms of joy. And though Broderick attempts to shake Shmuel from his obsession, there is no stopping a man addicted to tormenting himself with emotional devastation handily submerged by a preoccupation with precise facts about decomposition. There is only the opportunity to extend one’s kindness, befriend the tormented one and help him relieve his misery going down the path of least resistance. And that is what Broderick does.
Cleverly, the writers and the director quickly pass over the logic of the circumstance that anyone but Albert would dump Shmuel, ignore him, or call the police on him. However, the haunted Shmuel is a wandering ghost who does not know that his “deadness” outside covers up his raw bleeding wounds inside. Thus, if Broderick doesn’t help him with this scientific experiment, Shmuel’s state is such he will be haunted forever. Who knows what he might do? Thus, the kind teacher/helper, gradually allows himself to be persuaded to partner with Shumel on this secret adventure. Their friendship and rapport becomes the humanity and beauty of To Dust and the emotional payoff in satisfaction points is huge.
Broderick’s impeccable comedic timing and his fabulous intuition for what can get a laugh comes from his extensive experience acting on Broadway and Off Broadway. It is this pacing garnered from years of sensing audiences that he translates humor flawlessly to the screen. The comedy of the situation bounces back and forth on Shmuel’s and Albert’s journey of discovery. Broderick’s Albert becomes hooked out of curiosity, compassion and the fact that he has nothing much else going on in his life. And besides. He’s an open-minded stoner, not an uptight evangelical Christian.
The adventures they encounter involve grave robbing, but for a good purpose, research, and a visit down South to a “Body Farm” and other experiences. Many of the scenes at the grave or woods dealing with the wife’s shrouded body are hilarious and the ironies abound. The scenes with the pig are hysterical. The very idea that they would experiment and even touch the animal considered filthy among the Jewish orthodox who do not eat pork indicates the extent to which Shmuel is beside himself in horror at her death. His shuddering torment is worse than touching the porker a 5000+ year-old tradition of banning the cloven-hoofed from the Jewish Orthodox diets and presence. How Broderick and Shmuel deal with the unclean or ” trade” — האַנדל (טמא — is beyond the pale riotous.
Also, there is the apprehension that they could be stopped and questioned by the police for their secret deeds. How would they answer for themselves? Making rational sense of what they are doing with Shmuel’s wife’s body to the legal authorities conjures all sorts possibilities. This alone is priceless sardonic humor.
The dialogue is exceptional because these actors are so authentic in their attempts to deal with the absurdity of death from their perspective as citizens of life. The concept of death taken to its existential extreme is one we all must confront. What happens to us after our hearts stop and our brain function completely ceases? Does consideration of what is beyond and of what we will look like 10 years after death terrify? Certainly, we identify and empathize with Shumel. So does Albert. We have to because we are mortal. And how fast do we decompose if we are not embalmed? The Jewish tradition stipulates burial before sundown of the day of death.
If the actors and the situation created by Snyder and Begue weren’t so humorous, we would be as frightened as this husband is every time his imagination resurrects his wife. She torments him with the only thing left of her, her body. If not for the situational absurdity and humor, we would be saddened for this husband’s emotional debility in not being able to get over her loss.
That would be a different film. As a result, there is not even an affirmation that there is a life after death or that she resides in another dimension, or has achieved a God consciousness. In all that these Orthodox Jews have sacrificed in their lives to uphold their religious culture and folksways, one would think that there would be much consideration and comfort available to the living as they mourn the passing of their beloved. However, introducing the concept of the sweet hereafter would throw in an inappropriate twist based upon religious tradition. And it would change the tone of this film. Its richness in moving between surprise, comedy and sardonic jokes forces us to shift on a dime and follow along. The fact that the director and writer have engaged us in this very dark subject, then made us laugh about it is sheer perfection.
Also, another irony is not lost on us as aa truism in life: those who readily help others cannot easily help themselves. Here is a religious cantor who sings at funerals and helps others grieve by stemming their sorrow with his beautiful, anointed voice. In his own life he is incompetent at helping himself grieve and mourn. Indeed, the religion to which he has devoted his life and purpose is insufficient until he confronts his loss in real time and doesn’t disassociate from it. Albert’s friendship and camaraderie is crucial for Shmuel. And then occurs a brief intervention by his young children which forces him into the realization that he and his wife are in different mediums. One way to engage with her is to be present for his children and shake off the concept that she experiences soul torment based on a material/empirical time constraint.
To Dust works on many levels. It captivates, entertains and enthralls us with unanswerable questions that we will never answer in our bodies. And that’s the rub of it. Thankfully, laughter, too is a part of the mourning process. To Dust reminds us of this with bucketfuls of humor. For that and the adroit way the writers and directors negotiated this particular and inventive story with grace, humanity and love makes it a must-see.
This film screened at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and 2018 Hamptons International Film Festival. It won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens on 8 February 2019.