Movie Review: Shawn Snyder’s ‘To Dust’ Is The Stuff of Jewish Humor
A Hasidic cantor and a science teacher make for awkwardly delightful bedfellows in Shawn Snyder‘s dark comedy, To Dust, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is released Friday.
Following the death of his wife, Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) fears that her soul cannot rest until her body has decomposed. Unable to find solace until he knows she has gone to heaven, Shmuel seeks out Albert (Matthew Broderick), a local science teacher, and the two of them embark on a morbid and yet somehow hilarious journey to discover the intricacies of bodily decay.
Although the premise sounds a bit alarming, To Dust is actually an extremely entertaining film. It’s no surprise that Broderick pulls off his deadpan jokes as well as he’s done throughout his career, but Rohrig’s performance is especially stellar. Coming off of his success in the recent Son of Saul, the Hungarian actor (who is an Orthodox Jew himself) delicately tows the line between humorous and heart-wrenching, delicate and harsh, absurd and sympathetic. His character has some of the funniest lines in the film, and yet by the film’s end you’re left with a deep respect for the grief he has faced.
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Now, don’t get me wrong, To Dust is definitely as strange as it sounds. The plot meanders a bit as it reaches the middle, and the movie could definitely do without the grotesque images of decomposing bodies that break up the humor. Shmuel’s insistence on his observance coupled with his willingness to break the rules for the sake of his dead wife can sometimes be confusing, and Albert’s inability to teach Shmuel how a body decomposes despite being a science teacher (albeit, a low-brow teacher, as he reminds us of often enough throughout the film) is a little unbelievable. There’s also a minor plot-line involving Shmuel’s sons, who are convinced a demon has entered their father’s soul, which is far less entertaining and almost an unnecessary add-on to the film as a whole.
But overall, the film shines in its unique take on grief, and particularly in its distinctively Jewish humor. Never apologizing for its authenticity, and sometimes even refusing to explain its intricacies to the goyish audience, To Dust paints a remarkably accurate picture of the Hasidic community (a task many a film has failed to do), and the morbidity of the jokes are reminiscent of the satirical comedies from star Jewish writers like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Snyder, who co-wrote the film along with Jason Begue, leans in to that world, and, in doing so, manages to make an initially unappealing story turn out rather charming.
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