To Dust **1/2

An interesting, albeit a bit depressing, black comedy that smartly explores uncommon questions about death. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Religion and death have an odd, incompatible relationship. Many religions preach the comfort of the soul living on, of an afterlife being a better existence than the deceased knew on earth. That sounds great, but there’s no way to know for sure that it’s true, and surviving loved ones are going to mourn regardless. Within that grief comes anger, frustration, and questions.

In “To Dust,” a Hasidic cantor named Shmuel (Geza Rohrig, “Son of Saul”) has a question you may not have thought to ask. His wife recently died of cancer. He believes her soul cannot be freed until it is fully decayed, so he’s eager to know how long the decaying takes. Weeks? Months? Egad, longer? He initially consults his rabbi (Bern Cohen), who isn’t much help. He then goes to a funeral home, where he inquires about embalming and coffins. No satisfaction there.

Finally Shmuel proceeds to a local community college, where a sad sack biology teacher named Albert (Matthew Broderick) gets rid of him as quickly as possible, but not before hypothetically telling Shmuel to go bury a pig. Lost, unsure and desperate, Shmuel literally buries a dead pig. Confusion and complications ensue, which prompt Albert and Shmuel to spend the rest of the film together in an attempt to bring Shmuel, and his dead wife, peace.

This sounds like a dark and heavy drama, but in the hands of writer/director Shawn Snyder, it’s actually a rather amusing black comedy. In no way do the characters make light of death, but in their quest for truth, and to do the right thing, they find themselves in unthinkable situations that border on the absurd.

For example, there’s a scene in which Albert tests the soil where the pig was buried, and where Shmuel’s wife was buried. Albert is hoping to prove how quickly the soil assists in the decaying process, which in turn would give Shmuel a sense of how far along his wife’s decomposition has progressed. Revealing the results here would ruin the joke, but suffice it to say this is one of the film’s more amusing moments.

The supporting characters also add comic relief. Shmuel’s mother (Janet Sarno) waits just a few weeks before she tries to set him up with someone new, seemingly oblivious to her son’s continued heartache. His teenage sons (played by Leo Heller and Sammy Voit) believe there’s a dybbuk (ghost) inside their father, and try to exorcise it in a variety of clandestine ways. It’s sweet that they just lost their mother and their primary concern is their father’s well being.

In the end, “To Dust” is an interesting character study, albeit a depressing one. The reality is, we all grieve in our own way. Shmuel not finding immediate comfort with Judaism isn’t a knock on Judaism, but rather an indication that his grief can only be relieved when he knows his wife’s soul has achieved what their religious practice teaches. In doing so, he asks a question many of us have never even thought to ask, and in exploring that question Snyder creates an amusing tale of closure and woe.

Did you know?
Synder’s mother, Linda, died of cancer ten years ago, which inspired the story.

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