The mournful comedy To Dust has a sicko premise, but scrupulously sicko. Unable to live with his grief following the death of his wife from cancer, a Hasidic cantor, Shmuel (Géza Röhrig), fixates on what’s happening to her body — literally. He wants to know how she’s “dismantling in the earth” and if her soul is in pain. When he can’t get answers in his insular Westchester, New York, universe (the rebbe tells him to cease that line of thought and tend to his two sons), Shmuel wanders into a community college and accosts a science teacher, Albert (Matthew Broderick), who blanches and edges toward the door. The weirded-out professor finally produces a book that documents the day-by-day decay of a baby pig (said to be biologically similar to a human) — photos that the director, Shawn Snyder, animates in all their grisliness. (Thanks, Shawn.) But Shmuel still isn’t satisfied. He wants the real megillah. Dismayingly nonkosher is the sight of a bearded man with payot, a fur hat, and white socks pulled high buying and hefting a large pig to bury in a nearby forest. And then To Dust becomes even more cringe-inducing.
Cringe I did, but I have a great deal of respect for a director who can take a one-joke setup like this and stick with it, scene after icky scene, flouting not just Hasidic law but the strictures of mainstream comedy. It could not have been an easy pitch. (Snyder co-wrote the film with Jason Begue.) Shmuel’s trancelike idiocy is broad for my taste (was he an idiot before his wife died?), but Röhrig’s helplessness is affecting and has a larger resonance.
Fundamentalist communities hold onto members by keeping them ignorant of the world outside their respective scriptures, so it’s possible that Shmuel would know little more of life after death than what’s written in the Torah and Talmud. For that matter, we in the secular world don’t like to dwell on what happens to the shells of our loved ones. Like others of their generation, my Jewish grandparents (born in 1908 and 1910) had an abiding horror of decay and spent an ungodly amount of money on embalming and hermetically sealed coffins. Fashions change: I want the cheapest coffin there is so I can be part of the ecosystem as swiftly as possible. Which is, come to think of it, the point of To Dust: to reframe our posthumous return to the earth in a way that acknowledges the gory details (we live, after all, in an age of forensic fetishism) while leaving space for higher matters.
Higher matters — and good low comedy. Most of us know the Hungarian-born Röhrig only from his definitively non-comic performance as the Auschwitz Sonderkommando Saul in Son of Saul and will be stunned to learn who’s under that heavy black beard. The actor (he now lives in the U.S.) has a talent for staying on a single wavelength (no peripheral vision) while hitting deeper and deeper notes of despair. Watch him lope past a traditional Orthodox wedding, steal a bottle of Manischewitz, and stagger drunkenly toward his wife’s grave: He’s a master clown, gung-ho even when heartbroken. Shmuel’s anxious sons believe that he has eaten a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit, and they are not entirely wrong. Shmuel is so stricken that it’s only near the end of the film that he corrects Albert’s pronunciation of his name, the Gentile science teacher having been calling him “Shmell.”
Every time Broderick said “Shmell” I laughed — but then, I laughed at almost everything Broderick said. He’s a master clown, too. It’s hard to remember that one of our finest hangdogs was once — in War Games and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — the personification of vaulting juvenile idealism, but perhaps that was why he was such a likable teenage adventurer: We could perceive the inner worrywart being heroically cast aside. His Albert has no apparent personal life, only one or two students who even vaguely engage him and a weed habit that helps him make peace with emotional paralysis. He doesn’t relate to Shmuel’s despair and sputters that Shmuel’s hapless experiments with live and dead pigs are “a mockery of science,” but he goes along because … Well, if he doesn’t there’s no movie, but also because what else does Albert have to do? Someone cares about something and Albert — who cares about nothing — comes to care about Shmuel. They make a bizarrely excellent tag team.
To Dust is occasionally unintentionally cringe-inducing. The portrait of Shmuel will probably offend Orthodox Jews, despite — or perhaps because of — his continuous exclamations that everything he’s doing is “not Jewish.” The spirit of inquiry is extremely Jewish, but different communities have different levels of tolerance for going outside the lines.
There’s another reason that the mixture of monkeyshines and gruesomeness in To Dust might arouse queasiness, even anger. The casting of the star of Son of Saul is perhaps not so coincidental, given that Jewish people remain haunted by images of corpses dumped en masse into pits, and in some cases by the horrific accounts of Nazi concentration-camp guards of what happened in those pits when the bodies began to decay. To Dust could easily be viewed through the lens of the Holocaust, as the story of a survivor whose spirit is held down by the hard fact of mass extermination. The film’s final moments are indelibly moving: Shmuel, the cantor who has lost his voice, sits with his back to his two sons and the camera and begins to sing — a kaddish for the dead that takes him out of the physical world and back to the real home of his people.