Shawn Snyder’s directorial debut, To Dust, opens with an epigraph that sets the tone for the film. The first quote is from the Kohelet (aka Ecclesiastes): “Then the dust will return to the Earth as it was, and the spirit will return unto God who gave it.” The second is, “God is an overwhelming responsibility” — a line from none other than Jethro Tull. As suggested by the unusual pairing, what unfolds is an extremely odd and sometimes darkly comic meditation on death and grief.
In the film’s witty and at times painfully awkward script, Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul) plays Shmuel, a Hasidic cantor from upstate New York and recent widower. Overcome by fear that his wife’s soul cannot be free until her body goes back to the earth, he becomes obsessed with learning more about decomposition. His all-consuming quest to liberate her spirit puts him at odds with his faith, family and community, and ultimately teams him with an unwitting community college science teacher named Albert (Matthew Broderick).
Science, faith and culture collide to give us the backdrop for what amounts to a bizarre and macabre buddy movie — complete with the obligatory road trip. Röhrig and Broderick both possess the dramatic chops to carry the humanity of the story, while Broderick especially carries the comedic moments, balancing the absurdity of the situation with dry but broadly relatable humor. To Dust also benefits from an element of sweetness that acts as a cultural equalizer, drawing the viewer into Shmuel’s grief.
There aren’t many cinematic opportunities to feature Hasidic culture and death rituals, clips of a 1937 Yiddish movie about dybbuks, pseudo-scientific experiments on decomposition with a dead pig, a body farm and buddy movie standbys all in one place. To Dust does this and more, apparently filling a previously unserved niche.
If you are wondering how a film with a premise like this ever got made, it took an army of producers and a grant from the Alfred E. Sloan Foundation. If you’re wondering how it could possibly be interesting or remotely entertaining, it is those things, too — and it’s certainly one of the most original films you’ll see this year.
Bottom line, if an unorthodox odd couple ruminating on science and spirituality sounds like your cup of tea, this is your film. To Dust is worth seeing for its uniqueness, humanity and performances.
Starts March 29 at the Fine Arts Theatre