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“To Dust” Review

“To Dust” is the feature film debut for director Shawn Snyder. Snyder co-wrote the script with his long time collaborator, Jason Begue. The film stars Géza Röhrig (“Son of Saul”) and Matthew Broderick (“The Producers”).

“To Dust” is an intimate and personal tale of one man’s journey to make sense of his wife’s death while trying to reconcile, and honor, the beliefs and rituals of his faith against his need his for a more scientific explanation of what is happening to her Earthly remains. It’s an exploration of death and what comes next, an unanswered question for both science and mysticism, but a thing that we universally crave to better understand.

Snyder, with the help of poignant and deeply moving performances from Röhrig and Broderick , has a made a special movie with “To Dust.”  If the point of film is to tell a story and invoke an emotional response, “To Dust” is wildly successful. By a certain age, we have all been affected by the death of loved one, and “To Dust” reaches across faiths and cultures to show us that we are not alone in our suffering.

Shmuel (Röhrig) is a Hasidic cantor in upstate New York. The film was shot in Staten Island, New York, but located in the Hudson Valley, where there are in fact several large enclaves of Hasidic (Orthodox) Jews. The movie opens with his wife, Rivkah, dying from cancer. As his wife’s body is ritually prepared for her burial, Shmuel stands with his elderly mother in the hallway. He tries to tear his coat, as Torah law mandates as part of the Jewish mourning process, but is unable to do so and requires his mother’s little scissors.

To Dust

I bring up this detail because the image of Shmuel trying, with all his might, to make a tear in his coat juxtaposed with watching his wife being cleaned, wrapped in her shroud and then placed in her simple pine coffin, is an early indicator of the tone of “To Dust.” It’s  also the first of several times I laughed despite the solemnity of the moment.

Shmuel begins the ritualistic mourning period prescribed by his religion but soon begins to have nightmares. He sees his wife’s body rotting, her toe splitting open, over and over again. Interpreting these dreams, Shmuel becomes obsessed with the ability of his wife’s body to return “to dust,” a requirement if her soul is to be fully released from its Earthly shell. When Shmuel’s Rabbi offers nothing more than pat responses dictated by their faith, Shmuel begins a quest to find hard scientific answers on what is happening to his wife’s remains. Enter Albert (Broderick).

When a distraught Shmuel quite literally wanders into a biology class being taught at the fictional New Hempstead Community College, he finds the Professor, Albert, bumbling his way through a lesson aimed at kids that do not want to be in class. To be fair, you don’t get the impression that Albert wants to be there either.

Shmuel enlists Albert’s help to try and determine the state of decay that his wife’s body will be in, buried six feet underground in a pine box with three holes in the bottom.  Albert initially refuses, too weirded out by Shmuel’s earnest pleading in broken English, but acquiesces to help when Shmuel shouts that even coming to Albert with these questions is a grave sin in his religion. Also, Albert doesn’t have a whole lot going on besides.

What starts as a mission of pity and morbid curiosity on Albert’s part soon turns into a buddy detective story. Albert and Shmuel set out on an adventure to recreate the circumstances of Rivkah’s estimated decay and decomposition. Their discussions are frank, full of talk about bloating and gases and maggots, and their travels are surreal. They suffocate and bury (and rebury…several times) a real life pig to monitor its stages of decay. They visit a “body farm” in Nashville; this is a place where human bodies are left out in nature for scientific and forensic study (a totally real thing).

To Dust

None of these things really work to answer Shmuel’s questions and assuage his fears. But it does allow him to go on a journey of true bereavement and reconciliation. Not only with his wife’s death, but also with his faith and its inability to set his mind at ease. Shmuel’s story arc takes him from a place of desperation and inconsolable grief to a place of catharsis and the start of healing. As the movie ends, you are left with the feeling that Shmuel will be okay and he will be able to finally return to living again.

There is a side plot where Shmuel’s two sons become convinced that their father has been taken over by a dybbuk, essentially the spirit of their dead mother. It provides some necessary comedy and low grade, B-horror vibes.

I really enjoyed this film. Before watching, I had concerns that this was going to be a very specific film, inaccessible to those outside of the Jewish Orthodox faith, but I was terribly wrong. Death and the multitudinous ways in which we grieve is universal. How we conceive of our loved ones “moving on” after death is often formed by our religion (whatever religion that may be) as well as by our experiences growing up. It’s not hard to place yourself in Shmuel’s shoes, becoming obsessed with the specificity of his wife’s decay as a way to understand where she is, her soul and spirit.  As a people, we often seize on granular details as a coping mechanism, a way to understand the larger concepts of life and death and the universe — concepts that may be too large for us to parse alone.

The inspiration for “To Dust” was born from the death of Shawn Snyder’s mother 10 years ago. In my interview with Snyder and Röhrig, Snyder explained that the movie was part of him “navigating [his] way through [his]  own grief.” Snyder says that while the ritualistic mourning protocols of Judaism are “profound” and “life affirming,” his grief was so specific (as all grief is) he found that it “spilled outside the boundary of those guidelines.” He explained that he found himself becoming interested in the question of his mother’s decay and realized that he was venturing into the territory of a scientific, versus religious, question. This is Shmuel’s journey.

To Dust

“To Dust” walks a fine line of melancholy and madness, with just enough macabre humor to relieve the borderline blasphemy on screen. But I will admit, it made me feel slightly guilty for giggling along with Shmuel and Albert’s antics.  Art often imitates life but also, there is a catharsis that can be had through artistic expression. “To Dust” is a great tool to examine death and how we cope and process. Like with the use of humor: I am the type of person that laughs at inappropriate times, that uses humor as a coping mechanism. And I laughed a lot during “To Dust.” But that’s okay. Laughter is catharsis, and the deadpan humor provided by Röhrig and the sarcastic asides from Broderick  help ease the tension of the situation. It’s Snyder reaching out to remind us that you can use levity to help heal.

The last takeaway from “To Dust” is to appreciate that this is not a lampoon of religion, nor is it an attempt to pit science versus faith. It’s the complete opposite in fact. Snyder explains that, “I had this hope that somehow, that journey into the mysticism [of Judaism] was going to find the bizarre intersections with science.”  In the end, he found that “science isn’t the opposite of religion but, sort of, the flip side.” That idea of science being an aid to spiritual understanding is very apparent in “To Dust” and hopefully, goes a long way to removing fears from any one who is worried that the movie is going to be an indictment of their faith.

“To Dust” was a part of Independent Filmmaker Project’s 2015 Emerging Storytellers, the recipient of the NYU/Alfred P. Sloan’s $100K First Feature Award, the winner of Tribeca Film Institute’s 2016 Sloan Student Grand Jury Prize and was a part of the NYU Production Lab’s inaugural slate.  It won the “Narrative Audience Award” at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival while Snyder took home the award for “Best New Narrative Director.”

“To Dust” was released in limited theaters, nationwide, on February 8, 2019. Find tickets here.

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