‘To Dust’: A cantor and a professor walk into a graveyard …
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The most bizarre thing about “To Dust” is how it’s not really all that bizarre at the end of the day.
Even though it’s the story of a grieving man who takes a crash course in the post-mortem decay of the human form because he’s concerned part of his dead wife’s soul will remain in her body until her mortal remains are fully decomposed.
Also, this movie begins with quotes from the Kohelet (“Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return unto God who gave it”) and Jethro Tull (“God is an overwhelming responsibility”), so there’s that.
Directed and co-written by Shawn Snyder, “To Dust” is a dark but not bleak comedy, an oddly effective love story and also a classic buddy movie, albeit presented within a framework I don’t we’ve ever seen before in the genre.
It’s also lovely and offbeat and kind of wonderful.
Geza Rohrig (“Son of Saul”) is a deadpan treasure as Shmuel, a Hasidic cantor whose wife has recently died from cancer, leaving Shmuel with two young sons — and LOTS of questions.
Specifically, Shmuel is worried sick (to the point of having nightmares) about his wife’s eternal soul and his aforementioned concerns at least part of her soul will remain trapped on Earth until her body decomposes.
But how long does that take, exactly? Shmuel’s quest takes him to a Christian funeral home, where he peppers the initially patient proprietor with questions about the qualities of various coffins, and how long it takes for nature to work its course, etc., etc., until the man explodes and says, “I’m just a coffin salesman, I’m not a f—ing scientist!”
Enter Matthew Broderick’s Albert, who IS a scientist — albeit an underachieving one, given his teaching position at a local community college, where his students don’t even try to mask their collective boredom as Albert drones on and on.
When Shmuel approaches Albert and explains his quest, Albert graciously walks Shmuel through the (quite nauseating) textbook steps of decomposition and says if one were to bury, say, a recently deceased pig of a certain size, it might provide an approximate parallel to what happens to the human body.
Suffice to say Shmuel missed the “theoretically” part of that lesson, prompting Albert to exclaim: “You buried a pig here? Wow. This is just wrong. This is just all kinds of wrong. … You’re not going to get a comparable decomp here. … All due respect to your wife, I’m sure she was larger than that …”
(Few actors in the world are better than Broderick when it comes to expressing disbelief in comedic fashion. He’s been doing it via one character or another for decades now.)
From that point, “To Dust” takes increasingly absurdist turns, with Shmuel and Albert developing a bond of sorts as they embark on various adventures in their now-mutual quest to provide Shmuel with the answers that ease his burden and allow him to say goodbye to his beloved wife and turn his attentions to his sons, who as you might expect are worried their father has lost his mind and is in danger of never retrieving it.
The comedy is often broad, e.g., Albert keeps calling Shmuel “Shmell” and referring to him as a rabbi (to which Shmuel always replies, “I’m not a rabbi, I’m a cantor”), not to mention separate scenes of Shmuel getting drunk and Albert getting high (while listening to “Aqualung”). No doubt the material will offend some, given the nature of the storyline.
And yet beneath the sometimes grisly visuals and the pitch-black humor and the general weirdness, this is the story of two men with precious little in common who become friends against all odds and help one another find a little peace in life.
As I said. Classic buddy movie material.
Good Deed Entertainment presents a film directed by Shawn Snyder and written by Snyder and Jason Begue. Rated R (for language and some disturbing images). Running time: 92 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.