“To Dust” features Matthew Broderick and Géza Röhrig in a film about a bereaved Hasidic cantor obsessing about how his late wife’s body is decaying. To help him understand what is happening underground, he enlists the help of a reluctant, non-Jewish biology teacher.
Billed as a comedy, “To Dust” is more accurately a dramedy or a buddy picture. It’s actually more weird than funny. It is hard to recommend the film, as many audiences may be put off by its queasy, even graphic scenes involving decaying bodies or graves.
When Hasidic cantor Shmuel (Röhrig) loses his beloved wife, Rivkah, to cancer, he is devastated. Although his mother comes to help care for his two boys, Noam (Leo Heller) and Naftali (Samuel Mori Voit), Shmuel is barely functional. Six weeks after Rivkah’s death, he still is unable to return to work, obsessed by questions about her suffering and tormented nightly by graphic nightmares about the decay of her body. Talking to the rabbi has not helped, so Shmuel decides to seek out someone who might know something about how a body decays.
He ends up consulting a biology professor named Albert (Broderick) at the local community college. Albert is not Jewish, can barely comprehend what Shmuel is asking and is not eager to help. Still, Shmuel persists, and the teacher reluctantly gives in.
This is director Shawn Snyder’s first feature film. Snyder, a Reform Jew with a degree in religion from Harvard, seems to have had good intentions. With Broderick and the gifted Hungarian Jewish actor Röhrig (who was terrific in the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul”) in the cast, hopes were high. But despite Röhrig’s acting, which is the highlight of the film, the results are disappointing.
In one of the film’s more graphic scenes, the professor shows the cantor footage of a decomposing baby pig, real footage from a biology doctoral thesis. But the speed of decomposition is uncertain, influenced by many factors, and the uncertainty leaves Shmuel unsatisfied. Some might find the decomposition footage icky enough, but what it sparks Shmuel to do goes beyond both comic taste and anybody’s social norms.
Broderick’s comic efforts are tepid at best. His character is somewhat underdeveloped, although you get the sense he grows to care about the grieving cantor by the end. Broderick’s Albert is a bit of a mess and generally seems to have a tendency to garble pronunciations. He repeatedly calls Shmuel “rabbi” despite the Hasidic man’s corrections and eventually ends up calling him “Shmel” or even “smell” instead of his name.
Is that funny? Not very, but it is a sample of what passes for humor here. And it’s nothing compared with what is to come. Jokes about bacon lead to slapstick scenes with a dead pig; eventually, the Hasidic man wrestles a dead pig into a shallow grave and later digs it up as a way to monitor what may be happening to his wife’s body.
The dramatic parts work somewhat better than the comic ones, mostly thanks to Röhrig’s touching performance.
As Shmuel worries that his wife is suffering as she returns to dust, his sons worry he has “eaten a dybbuk,” an evil spirit, something a classmate teases them about. They brush off the teasing at first, but then the boys develop their own obsession with the idea. The two end up sneaking into a storage room of their yeshiva to find a copy of the 1937 movie “The Dybbuk,” a black-and-white Yiddish-language Polish fantasy. They hope watching the film will help them figure out whether it is true, or even what to do.
This kid-centric subplot is infinitely more believable and far less gross than what the cantor and the biology teacher end up doing. In one of the film’s better scenes, Shmuel takes the boys out on a lake and directs them to tell their dead mother they love her. Hesitant, the older boy, Noam, says “this isn’t Jewish,” which applies to much of what Shmuel has been doing.
With this cast, “To Dust” could have been a better, more thoughtful or even a funnier film. Röhrig gives it his best, but it’s not enough to save this bizarre script.