GPJFF38: TO DUST
In director Shawn Snyder’s feature debut, To Dust, Shmuel (Geza Rohrig), a recently widowed Hasidic cantor, must come to terms with his wife’s sudden death from cancer. Shmuel’s obsession to better understand his wife’s journey in death (or rather, her body’s “dismantling”), leads him to the classroom of Albert (Matthew Broderick), a maladroit community college science teacher who, against his better judgement, takes it upon himself to help Shmuel in his quest. What results is a sometimes humorous jaunt at the lengths we’ll go for answers when trusted institutions fail us.
The issue that sets this film into motion is the belief that in the time it takes for a body to return to the earth, the soul is in turmoil. As a man who loves his wife, Shmuel cannot abide his wife’s suffering during this process, and no amount of platitudes from friends, family, and religious leaders is going to sooth Shmuel’s mind. Thus, the state of her soul, and her body, consumes him, to the point where he must determine the exact amount of time it will take for her body to dismantle.
If we’re to believe that Shmuel is a religious man, then it takes some suspension of disbelief to watch his dogged attempts to determine the state of his wife’s decomposing body. From burying pig corpses for observation, to visiting a body farm, Shmuel’s mission leads him very far astray. His relationship with Albert is an interesting one, but odd for a man who is rather closed off from secular society. Shmuel’s trust in Albert’s “expertise” is yet another symptom of his desperation, although as the film points out on a few humorous occasions there are few people around who are willing to indulge Shmuel in his morbid obsession. Albert’s interest in Shmuel makes sense in that their time together is just about as exciting as it gets for a middle-aged, divorced science teacher.
In the end, all the outlandish and bizarre behavior illustrated in the film can be explained away by the fact that when our most beloved institutions and traditions fail to provide adequate explanations for our deepest pains, we still require answers. The mind doesn’t simply turn off, if anything, the desire increases with intensity to such a point that digging up corpses doesn’t seem so crazy if it means gaining peace of mind.
To Dust is a strong effort that suffers from some of the usual first film pitfalls, namely overworked attempts at comedy that don’t quite come together both in the dialogue and direction. Still I had fun with this quirky film about a topic I’ve probably spent more time than Shmuel mulling over.
To Dust is screening at the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival at 7:00pm, November 8th, at the Ritz East. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.