Dark comedy, rated R, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
Shmuel, a devout Hasidic Jew, is obsessed with a desire to understand the process of his recently deceased wife’s bodily decay. His religion provides him with unsatisfactory explanations. That leads Shmuel to a crisis of faith that drives him to seek answers outside of the canon of his belief.
That might not sound like the set-up for a mismatched-buddy comedy, but To Dust is anything but formulaic. Director Shawn Snyder’s first feature is a thoughtful, morbid, quirky, darkly humorous gem. The slowly putrefying object of Shmuel’s affection is really just a MacGuffin, an excuse for a ruminative debate between science and religion. Funny, right? Well, in the context of this movie, it actually is. But tickling the funny bone isn’t really the point. The fact that neither science nor religion alone can provide all the answers is.
Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig plays Shmuel with a heavy air of dolefulness. It hangs over him like a cloud. He’s tormented by nightmares of his dead wife’s decaying big toe and the thought, based on his religious teachings, that the soul remains in the body until it’s completely turned to dust. He’s troubled by the idea that his wife still suffers postmortem. He turns to his rabbi (Ben Cohen), who offers only platitudes when Shmuel wants a deeper conversation about the afterlife.
Driven by despair, Shmuel makes a bold step and pays a visit to Albert (Matthew Broderick), a burned-out pothead biology professor at the local community college. Broderick’s Albert is remarkably daft for a man of science, but in a way that suggests he spends too much time in his own head. He can’t get Shmuel’s name right and can’t seem to grasp that the man with the dark clothes, long sidelocks, and beard is not, in fact, a rabbi.
The movie’s well-placed humor also stems from the contrast between the luckless Albert — who is corrected by his own students when he spouts malapropisms — and the grave figure of Shmuel, with his gruesome fixation. The latter has two sons who suspect their father’s mania is caused by a dybbuk, or evil spirit of the dead. That leads to some antics in which they attempt to covertly exorcise the demon. Meanwhile, Albert, finding Shmuel a willing student, reluctantly engages the fellow in a crash course on biological decomposition that includes a cross-country excursion to a body farm and a grim experiment involving a dead pig.
Despite the film’s absurdities, Snyder, who co-wrote the screenplay, doesn’t take the subject matter of a husband’s grief and the mystery surrounding death lightly. If anything, its humor merely serves to make To Dust a slightly easier pill to swallow. Snyder never takes things too far — into the realm of slapstick, say. What emerges through this unlikely pairing and their efforts to pierce death’s veil is a look at the shortcomings of creeds, whether based in fact or on faith.