In the new sardonically humored film from writer/director Shawn Snyder, To Dust, a wife passes away, and her husband, a Hasidic Jew from an Upstate New York Orthodox community becomes obsessed with her decomposition. It stretches the boundaries of something that at its base is quite absurd and most certainly morbid yet within minutes of realizing where the film is heading there’s something about the plight of cantor Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) that develops into what can only be best described as endearing. And it’s funny.
That dry sense of Jewish gallows humor is established early. Shmuel cannot accept the death of his wife. Plus, he can’t tear a piece of his clothing, an expression of grief and anger at the loss of a loved one, the ancient practice of Kriah. His mother (Janet Sarno) hands him a small pair of scissors to help start the tear, but he still can’t seem to make it work.
The problem for Shmuel is he’s plagued by a nightmare. He can’t get the image of a graphically decomposing toe out of his head. “Tend to your children,” advises an elderly rabbi when Shmuel tells him of his dilemma. “Take care of yourself.”
But the need to know the process of a body’s decomposition possesses Shmuel to the point where he’s willing to step outside the circle of his faith and ask for advice elsewhere. First, he goes to a funeral parlor and asks for the advice of an undertaker (Joseph Siprut). “How does she dismantle?” Shmuel asks. “Look, I’m a coffin salesman,” the undertaker replies with irritation. “I’m guessing there’s no sale here, right?”
The cantor and father of two eventually turns for help from a man of science; he goes to the local community college where Albert (Matthew Broderick) teaches. “I feel her soul is suffering,” the tormented Shmuel explains to the professor. “What’s to become of her body?” Albert tries to be polite in answering what is in truth a bizarre question. He even goes so far as to show the cantor a video of a piglet whose body was filmed at high-speed decomposing, explaining that while the film may be that of an animal, the process for the man’s wife should be just the same.
But for Shmuel, the pig is not enough. He refuses to quit. His desire to witness first hand how his wife’s body will ‘dismantle’ and become one with the earth proves all-consuming. He drags the reluctant community college science teacher into a bizarre partnership of corpse hunting, one that will eventually lead them on a 700-mile road trip to a corpse farm where bodies are purposely left above ground in order to be forensically studied as they decay.
While the focus of the film is centered on the tortured Shmuel and the exasperated Albert, there’s a humorous subplot involving the cantor’s two boys who believe that their father may be possessed by the dislocated soul of their departed mother; in Jewish mythology, a dybbuk. According to one of the boys, who learned about dybbuks from an educational tape called ‘All You Need To Know About Dybbuck’ explains how the spirit enters the body. “Everyone knows it comes in through the big toe on your left foot,” he states. Which is why late one night when their father is asleep, the two boys creep into his bedroom, gather in front of dad’s exposed left foot and talk directly to his big toe, telling their mother to go.
The pacing is intentionally slow and the humor, deadpan. When a security guard (Natalie Carter) at the out-of-state corpse farm catches Shmuel and Albert trying to climb the farm walls, she stops them but becomes sympathetic when Albert explains that Shmuel’s wife has recently died of cancer. In her attempt to offer condolences, the guard reminds the cantor that “Jesus loves you.”
The film runs 92 minutes but feels shorter. And even though the subject sounds unsavory with a decidedly limited appeal, and the sight of decaying bodies and graphically displayed nightmares of skin peeling back down to the bone is, frankly, gross, To Dust continually engages, particularly because of the comical pairing of Hungarian actor Rohrig as the Hasidic widower and Matthew Broderick as the hapless Gentile community college professor. Together they play like a minimalist Bialystock and Bloom, performing in an act that runs forever in slow motion.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 92 Minutes