Never in my life would I have imagined that I just watched a buddy comedy about a Hasidic Cantor and a burnout community college professor trying to figure out how quickly bodies decay to help the grieving process. But here I am, having just watched To Dust.
Géza Röhrig plays the aforementioned cantor, Shmuel. At the beginning of the film, while Tom Waits’ “Blow, Wind, Blow” plays in the background, we see his wife’s body being prepared for an Orthodox burial. His wife, Rivka, died from cancer and Shmuel was not ready for her absence. He is in a serious state of mourning. He stops his cantor studies. The people from his synagogue and his mother are worried for him.
Shmuel has a recurring dream of a flower growing out of his wife’s toe in her coffin. He becomes obsessed with knowing exactly how much to the Earth she has returned. Frantic, Shmuel goes to his local community college in upstate New York, and asks the receptionist (on paper, because he can’t speak to a gentile woman) where he can find a scientist. We are then taken to Albert Prendergast’s Biology class. Pendergrast is played by the one and only Matthew Broderick.
“…a Hasidic Cantor and a burnout community college professor try to figure out how quickly bodies decay…”
From here, things just get weirder and funnier. Shmuel is obsessed with the idea that if he knows exactly how decomposed his wife’s body is, he will feel better. This then evolves into him wanting her to be completely decomposed. There are a lot of “experiments” undertaken involving a couple of pigs and something called a “body farm.” Meanwhile, Shmuel’s sons, Noam (Leo Heller) and Naftali (Sammy Volt) think their father is possessed by a dybbuk (a dislocated soul of a dead person) and then that evolves into Shmuel being possessed by their mother.
There’s a lot of heavy material to be examined in this film, and there are some pretty realistic depictions of dead bodies, of both the human and porcine variety, but that does not stop it from being absolutely hilarious, and also, oddly heartwarming. Broderick and Röhrig make a great comedic team. Shmuel is the oblivious, maybe crazy “straight guy”, and Albert is the stoned nutty professor. They’re quite a dynamic duo. They even go on a road trip!
“…a very inventive, original story, in a cinematic landscape that sometimes seems bereft of such things.”
Jason Begue and Shawn Snyder’s script for the film is the star of the show. This is a very inventive, original story, in a cinematic landscape that sometimes seems bereft of such things. Snyder brings out the best in all the cast, allowing a somewhat outlandish premise make sense and not seem as morbid as it could look on paper. Additionally, it shows the rest of the world a lot about Orthodox Hasidic culture from a seemingly inside perspective, which I personally found very intriguing. It’s worth mentioning that Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer produced this, if only to mention that I love both of them and, additionally, they made a good choice in backing such a gem of a film.
It’s rare that comedies these days are anything other than that of the Apatovian or UCB variety, which, of course, I still love and probably always will. However, it’s nice to get a unique spin on the genre once in a while. I hope that more comedies can follow in To Dust’s footsteps. We need some new blood, and it’s weird that some of the newest come from a movie that has a lot to do with dead bodies. Regardless, it’s a fun film! Check it out!
To Dust (2019) Written by Jason Begue and Shawn Snyder. Directed by Shawn Snyder. Starring Géza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Volt, Sarah Jes Austell, Natalie Carter, Bern Cohen, Linda Freiser, Ben Hammer, and Leo Heller.
8 out of 10 stars