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Review: To Dust

March 15, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

After losing his beloved wife to cancer, Shmuel (Géza Röhrig), a Hasidic Jewish cantor, becomes obsessed with finding out how her body is decomposing post-burial, to make sure her soul has properly left its earthly vessel so that she may find peace.

This is the entirely original premise of director Shawn Snyder’s accomplished debut feature To Dust, which offers a fascinating, at times unsettling, and ultimately weirdly moving study of grief and traditional religious beliefs that also functions as a dark buddy comedy of sorts.

Spurred by the belief that his wife’s soul will only be able to truly rest when her body has completely returned to the earth, and faced with disturbing nightmares involving her decaying body, Shmuel sets out to find answers to his unusual question and hopefully also get some closure around her death.

Shmuel ends up seeking the help of Albert (Matthew Broderick), a washed up biology professor at a local community college. Trying to help, Albert tells Shmuel about old experiments done with pigs, examining the body’s decomposition process once it is in the ground. This prompts Shmuel to break with kosher rules and carry out the ethically dubious experiment of burying a dead pig, but he ends up with more questions that need answering, and Albert becomes his unwitting accomplice.

Meanwhile, Shmuel’s two sons have become concerned that their father has “swallowed” the dybbuk of their mother, and look to release her through his big toe, per traditional beliefs. First and foremost, To Dust functions as a portrait of a man grieving in a highly unconventional way, while also working as the story of two men coming together and finding solace in their company. The characters of Shmuel and Albert couldn’t be more different, yet the two characters come to form an understanding with each other, and it’s a friendship that we believe thanks to the strength of the actors playing them.

Röhrig delivers a finely textured, deeply felt and nicely understated performance that couldn’t be more different from but is almost equally as impressive as his intense breakout role in the holocaust drama Son of Saul, further showcasing his full emotional range as a performer. Broderick delivers his best work in quite some time, reminding us just how sardonic and funny he can be, while also bringing shades of nuance and pathos to his character that a lesser actor might have missed.

The screenplay, co-written by Snyder and Jason Begue, strikes just the right balance between being darkly funny and also respectful of its character’s grief, while offering a really interesting look at the collision between science and traditional religious beliefs. The film often works as a comedy, albeit a pitch black one, with Röhrig and Broderick having a sort of odd couple chemistry together that is often delightful to watch. But there is also a sense of sorrow running through it, amplified by Xavi Giménez’s moody and beautifully earthy cinematography.

It’s not always pleasant or easy to watch – the images of decaying bodies, whether human or animal, are graphic and disturbing – but To Dust is also one of the most unique and startling portraits of grief that I have ever seen. It pulls off the very tricky tonal balance of being both disarmingly funny and emotionally resonant in ways that will stick with you after it ends, carried by a pair of excellent performances from Röhrig and Broderick.

To Dust is now playing in limited release at Famous Players Canada Square in Toronto.

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