Death makes fools of us all because it exposes the limitations of human knowledge. We may have strong beliefs about what happens after our final breath, but none among us truly knows what happens. That uncertainty can gnaw away at those left behind with little more than the memory and the body of the recently departed.
In To Dust, first-time feature director Shawn Snyder locates the tragedy in pining for such answers but also digs a little deeper for a truly revelatory find. Because of – and remarkably, not in spite of – the weighty material he deals with, he finds the comedy in the situation. The lengths to which devastated widower Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) goes to achieve the sense of finality that he cannot locate within his religious community eventually reaches the point of absurdity. We don’t laugh at him; we laugh with him because the Grim Reaper could come knocking at one of our own loved ones’ doors someday soon.
It’s a bit of a surprising tonal tightrope to walk, especially for a film that begins with some fairly sobering scenes inside a hospital where Shmuel’s wife succumbs to cancer. Her body is prepared for quick burial in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, a process which Snyder documents in painstaking detail. Through the rituals, she’s connected to millennia of tradition, yet it hardly provides comfort for Shmuel. In the absence of a religious remedy for his worry, he ventures outside conventional boundaries and begins to look for answers in science.
As a proxy for his wife’s soul, Shmuel fixates on the fate of her body lying in the ground. What forces are acting on her in the dirt? How is she decaying and decomposing? With nothing to guide him in his own community, he stumbles into a local university and asks for a scientist – and just that. Nothing more specific. Luckily, he walks into the classroom of Albert (Matthew Broderick), who’s just bored, curious and compassionate enough to indulge Shmuel’s vague requests.
After fetching a book that illustrates how the body of a pig breaks down in the earth, Albert plants the idea in Shmuel’s head to simulate the decomposition of his wife by burying a pig that they can occasionally check on in the ground. The two make for an odd couple, with Shmuel so firm in his desire to create his own sense of closure and Albert never clear why he allows himself to keep getting dragged along for the wild ride. They’re both bumbling and hapless in their own way, too. Shmuel, operating well outside of his cultural comfort zone, commits many a well-intentioned faux pas. Albert, meanwhile, has a bumbling streak and tends to fumble endearingly over his own words. (His mix-up between “Hasidic” and “acidic” draws a belly laugh.)
Röhrig and Broderick work remarkably well in tandem throughout To Dust, with the former providing the sincerity and the latter bringing some levity. Broderick in particular serves as a welcome release valve for some of the heavy subject matter, which might otherwise drag down the film. The wry wit keeps the film moving at a nice clip and lightens the air that might otherwise reek of putrid corpses. Broderick serves as the film’s real scene-stealer, and it’s an opportunity for him to shine like we haven’t seen in a while. Perhaps a little backstory might have made him an even more compelling character, but Albert’s wise-cracking unwitting companion still delights with each time he gets drawn in further to Shmuel’s quest for certitude.
Röhrig, previously only seen on the big screen in 2015’s harrowing Holocaust drama Son of Saul, is plenty compelling in his own right, though. The performance is not nearly as layered or revelatory as his last one, but he still inflects To Dust with a moving humanity. (Ethan Hawke was in attendance at the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere, and I overheard him nearby saying he came primarily because he was such a fan of Röhrig’s last turn.) Shmuel’s whirlwind journey gives Röhrig a chance to show a greater emotional range beyond the dour morbidity of a Holocaust sonderkommando, although it does not scale nearly the same emotional heights as a result.
Röhrig’s best moments are the ones he shares with Broderick – Snyder’s script, co-written with Jason Begue, knows how to handle their relationship best. It doesn’t have quite the same dexterity when dealing with Shmuel’s children, who debate whether or not an evil spirit known as a dybbuk has taken hold inside their father. The subplot never really takes off, in part because it feels so separate from the rest of the action. If anything, it’s too conventional – one of few things in To Dust that is.
/Film rating: 8 out of 10
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