“To Dust” is an earnest, thoughtful, and often very funny film.
It’s an examination of how people cope with loss, and how sometimes neither science nor religion can provide answers to help grieving people process and move forward.
The deftness with which the production handles such heavy subjects while injecting humor truly sets this film apart.
What’s it about?
“To Dust” focuses on Shmuel (Géza Röhrig), a Hasidic cantor and father of two boys who at the film’s outset loses his wife Rivkah to cancer.
As is Hasidic custom, Shmuel’s community buries Rivkah in very short order. Not long after that, they gently encourage Shmuel to move past his grief.
Only Shmuel seems to be stuck. Plagued with nightmares about what might be happening to Rivkah’s body in the ground, he looks to his rabbi for comfort and answers and finds little of either.
Increasingly desperate, he then takes the radical step of secretly going outside his faith. He approaches a somewhat inept community college biology teacher, Albert (Matthew Broderick, “The Producers“), with his questions, to which Albert is both bewildered and hilariously ill-equipped to provide answers.
What results is an unlikely journey of discovery for both men, as well as arguably the most unexpected and awkward of friendships.
Terrific script, performances
“To Dust” comes from first-time feature director Shawn Snyder. Snyder also helped pen the script, and in both tasks he shows a talent for filling narrative beats with both emotional weight and quirky humor.
There’s also a great deal of authenticity here, both in the depiction of Shmuel’s community and their beliefs regarding death and mourning as well as the act of mourning itself and the questions it can sometimes prompt.
The cast, in turn, brings those narrative beats to life with lightness and charm. Röhrig is likable and sympathetic as Shmuel, a man who it’s very clear has never asked questions of this sort before and has no idea how to reconcile them, or the grief that prompted them.
Broderick, meanwhile, gets to have fun doing something he’s done well throughout his career: project hapless befuddlement. His bumbling take on Albert never crosses the line into outright slapstick, but it comes awfully close, and it’s a joy to watch.
It’s important to note that despite “To Dust” being focused on the experience of an individual of a particular faith, there’s a great deal in the film’s story that’s universal. Most of us can relate to the distress death and loss can cause, the emotional crisis it can often prompt.
What’s ingenious here is just how thoughtfully the script and performers tackle that subject, as well as the vastly different approaches science and religion take to it, while keeping tone both light and earnest.
If you have the opportunity to catch “To Dust” in theaters, by all means do so. It’s sure to leave you thinking afterward, but also maybe chuckling a little. That’s a good thing for a film about such weighty matters.
Starring Géza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick. Directed by Shawn Snyder.
Running time: 105 minutes
Rated R for language and some disturbing images.