'To Dust': Film Review

Here's one you haven't heard before.
2/8/2019

'Son of Saul's' Geza Rohrig plays a Hasidic Jew seeking help from Matthew Broderick's science teacher in Shawn Snyder's comedy of grief.

A dryly funny debut that pairs science and religious belief in a way that must surely be unique in the annals of cinema, Shawn Snyder's To Dust stars Matthew Broderick as a science teacher who must help a Jewish widower (Geza Rohrig) determine how long it will take his wife's corpse to rot. Because he loves her. The strange and specific film doesn't reach for the kind of outrageousness that might make it an art house comedy hit, but instead plays its quirks nearly straight, refusing to mock its protagonist for beliefs few viewers will share.

Rohrig (star of Laszlo Nemes' Son of Saul) plays Shmuel, a Hasidic cantor whose wife has succumbed to cancer. Coming to the end of what others consider an acceptable period of mourning, Shmuel remains inconsolable — so zombie-like that schoolkids taunt his two sons, saying their father has "swallowed a dybbuk," a ghost. He has gruesome nightmares about his wife's body, and his rabbi's advice is no help. He finds himself wandering into a gentile funeral home and asking a coffin salesman, referring to his wife, "how does she dismantle in the earth?"

It seems that Shmuel has fixated on a bit of religious lore others of his faith have forgotten: He believes that a part of his wife's soul remains in her mortal body until it has decomposed completely. "I fear her soul is suffering until she returns to the earth," he is soon explaining — not to his rabbi or a shrink, but to the lackluster biology teacher (Broderick's Albert, gray and defeated) he seeks out at a nearby community college. Taken aback, Albert finds an academic paper and tries to draw conclusions based on the decomposition speed of a small lab animal. (Snyder accompanies this with some icky time-lapse footage of a dead pig, and more details about decay than some will want.)

But while he initially distances himself with a bit of gallows humor, Albert can't help engaging when he sees how fixated Shmuel is on this "angels on the head of a pin" religious literalism: Shmuel finds a small dead pig of his own, planning to see exactly how long it takes to rot, and Albert can't stand by. "This isn't right...this is a mockery of science," he complains. And then, reluctantly, he winds up designing a more apples-to-apples experiment.

Rohrig plays grief less like emotion than as a catastrophic diminishment of the intellect: Shmuel can see only one question before him, and he isn't equipped to answer it. He does, however, have something of a BS detector: As Albert eventually attempts to sidestep discouraging results with a specious secondary experiment, Shmuel calls him on it. He has sinned by going to science for answers, and he isn't even getting anything for it.

Fixated on that dybbuk idea, Shmuel's sons (Sammy Voit and Leo Heller) have their own superstitions to explore: Snyder is deadpan but gentle as he watches them try to cast a spirit out of their father.

Choosing to focus on elements of its subjects' faith that are the least likely to be shared even by Jews in the audience, the script (by Snyder and Jason Begue) could easily come across as mocking of the Orthodox. But instead it makes no judgment: With matter-of-fact Jewish wit, it accepts these beliefs as the story's ground rules, understanding that Shmuel won't make peace with his wife's death until he finds some way of reconciling his ideas with physical realities. If only all conflicts between religion and observable facts came to ends as satisfying as this film does.

Production companies: Wing and a Prayer Pictures, King Bee Productions
Distributor: Good Deed Entertainment
Cast: Geza Rohrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, Leo Heller
Director: Shawn Snyder
Screenwriters: Shawn Snyder, Jason Begue
Producers: Alessandro Nivola, Emily Mortimer, Scott Lochmus, Josh Crook, Ron Perlman
Executive producers: Todd Remis, David Moscow, Jason Dreyer, Jonathan Gray
Director of photography: Xavi Gimenez
Production designer: Alexandra Kaucher
Costume designer: Evren Catlin
Editor: Allyson C. Johnson
Composer: Ariel Marx
Casting directors: Jodi Angstreich, Laura Rosenthal

R, 91 minutes