When his wife died, Shmuel (Géza Röhrig), a Hasidic jew, first sought comfort in his faith, dutifully committed to its mourning rituals. He tore into the fabric of his jacket, a practice known as keriah. Following the Taharah ritual, he had her remains washed and purified and dressed her in a tachrichim for her funeral. And then, when Shmuel and his sons (Leo Heller and Sammy Voit) laid her to rest, they buried her in a simple pinewood coffin, one with three small holes drilled into its base, so that her soul might find peace as it returns to the earth.
There is no peace for Shmuel, however. Nightmares of his wife’s decaying corpse bedevil him. “Last night it was her toe,” he confides in his rabbi (Bern Cohen). “The nail had browned and cracked, bent back like a leaf.” It has been 30 days, observes the rabbi. Shloshim has come to a close. Now is the time to mend the jacket, return to the children, and move on with one’s life. When Shmuel speaks to his mother, it’s more of the same. Their words don’t reach him. It’s as if they’re speaking through water.
Consumed by grief, Shmuel begins to pull away from his family and his religion, receding further into his tormented mind. Has his wife’s body begun to decompose? Has her soul met the earth yet? Has it found peace? His thoughts are clouded by questions. Questions that, he believes, demand answers. Shmuel’s young boys would like some certainty as well. Their father, a cantor, no longer fills the house with song. They know of his nightmares, of course, and they whisper to each other at night, about how their father spends his afternoons poring over his wife’s belongings. The boys are merely children and aren’t sure how to make sense of their father’s grieving process. They believe the other children who claim that their father is possessed by a dybbuk — a spirit of the dead, likely their mother.
Choosing to venture outside his community, Shmuel knowingly commits a grave sin. He wanders into the everyday world, even choosing a funeral parlor of all places, to ask perfect strangers if his wife’s neshamah — her soul — feels pain. No one knows what to say, of course, and when he asks if she is “dismantling the earth,” their reactions are much the same. The absurdity of the situation hangs over every scene, giving way to To Dust’s rather bewildering ambitions of being a fish-out-of-water comedy. From here on out, Shmuel is more Homer Simpson than the Rev. Toller.
Soon enough, a bumbling Shmuel finds his way into a classroom, standing in front of Albert (Matthew Broderick), a science professor at the local community college. It’s Shmuel’s instinct to pummel the sad-sack professor with his usual questions, and it’s Albert’s inclination to edge toward the door. In spite of how weirded-out he is, however, Albert can’t seem to turn his back on Shmuel. It seems that Albert, a man who cares for nothing, is drawn to something in Shmuel; it’s something that the former man either never had or has long forgotten. Whatever it is, audiences will find themselves doing the heavy lifting for To Dust’s patchy script.
With precious little to bind them but a film that must go on, Shmuel and Albert (who calls his newfound companion “Shmell” and thinks he’s a rabbi) conduct a series of “wacky” science experiments, some of which involve labored slapstick. When Smuel brings a live pig into Albert’s home — wait, doesn’t Homer Simpson do this too? — audiences will question just how stupid To Dust wants them to think its main character is.
Despite the spectacularly unfunny script, Röhrig and Broderick are an absolute delight. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Election (1999) serve as clear reference points for Broderick’s casting, and it works well. For a character with seemingly no personal life or interests, Albert is immediately familiar. Brockerick plays his character like a tired, worse-for-wear Jim McAllister; re-meeting Broderick in this way helps define a character whose motivations are ambiguous at best.
Yet it’s Röhrig’s performance that not only carries the film forward but also shines a spotlight on To Dust’s most appealing attributes. Managing the film’s bizarre shifts in tone is a responsibility that falls squarely on Röhrig’s shoulders. The humor is broad, maybe even problematic. (One can’t help but wonder how a Hasidic Jew would feel about this representation.) When To Dust strains for comedy, however, Röhrig bends with it. Although he can’t save the jokes from falling flat, his multifaceted performance never lets go of a very real ache that runs through the heart of the film.
Despite its many shortcomings, To Dust brings a pure-hearted approach to its unconventional narrative techniques. In an early scene, Albert takes Shmuel to the campus library. They read from a book about forensic taphonomy. Albert opens to a chapter on pigs — a human’s closest biological relative — detailing the act of decay, the ways in which maggots might take up residence, and a grisly phenomenon known as “skin slippage.” It’s ghoulish stuff, sure, but To Dust isn’t going for shock; its line of inquiry is sincere. For Shmuel, breaking from a standardized grieving process and confronting the earthly realities of death brings a strange comfort, allows the fullness of life to return to him. And for Albert, witnessing Shmuel’s journey is a transformative experience.
These are precious insights coming from a film that’s likely to be one of the more audacious pieces of work this year. As hard as it might try, To Dust fails to score big laughs. It may, however, mend a heart.