To Dust

A Hasidic cantor with two sons loses his wife and becomes obsessed with her transition back “to dust”. His obsession leads him to a community college biology professor who joins him on his unorthodox journey to grasp death and its meanings.

This is the sort of film that The Boy and I used to live off in the pre-Trump/pre-SJW era. It’s an odd, low-key, funny and sensitive character study with Géza Röhrig (Saul in Son of Saul) as Shmuel, the widower and Matthew Broderick as Albert, the middle-aged teacher living an aimless, lonely life.


Shmuel is skeptical.

The freshman feature from writer/director Shawn Snyder, I began to wonder early on if it was perhaps inspired by a personal experience (whether by him or co-writer Jason Begue). The year is not fixed but I would guess it to be the early ’80s, and Shmuel’s pre-pubescent sons are enduring his madness by coming up with interesting explanations for his late night adventures—namely, he’s been possessed by the dybbuk of his late wife. That whole subplot felt very authentic.

The story begins when, after the funeral, Shmuel begins visualizing his wife’s corpse rotting. He sees her toe split and then blossom like a rose. This is a little disturbing to see, and probably off-putting to some audiences, but helps us understand what Shmuel is going through.

He ends up interrogating Albert on the state of body decomposition. This is another sign of the early ’80s, because Albert doesn’t really know much about it, and today anybody who’s ever seen an episode of “CSI” is an expert. He teaches biology and, y’know, the circle of life and all that, but he’s never really dug into the nitty gritty.

It gets weird.

Shmuel tries to explain things by taking his boys out on a boat and it’s almost as awkward as the Godfather II.

Shmuel’s not thinking all that clearly, and his misunderstanding leads him to bury a pig in the woods. Albert then chides him for doing it all wrong, since he got the pig from a Chinese restaurant and it had already been cleaned.

All this stuff that Shmuel does, by the way, is a sin in his Hasidic world. He becomes increasingly troubled as a result.

Albert’s journey is a different one: As a classic “modern guy”, divorced, in a dead-end job teaching dumb students stuff they don’t want to know, he first finds some meaning in being an authority to the hapless Shmuel. But by the end of the movie—a bold attempt to get into Dr. Bass’ Body Farm—it’s become more personal. The two are friends, even if that friendship is unusual by both their communities’ standards.

Punctuated with nice comedic and dramatic moments, like the boys trying to exorcise the dybbuk from their father’s big toe, and a reticent but resonant interview with the demure midwestern widow Shprintzel (a nice little piece for the actress Isabelle Phillips’ reel), it’s classic movie making: A story about people, flawed for sure, but basically good, struggling to make sense out of life.

You might have a chance to see this. Although it’s only in a couple dozen theaters nationwide, it does seem to have legs so it may travel around for awhile rather than just disappearing.

The Flower, The Boy and I all liked it.

Mmmm. Ham.

Pig enthusiasts may object to some scenes.

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