Shawn Snyder, who co-wrote the script for his new film To Dust with Jason Begue, took inspiration from his experiences as a Reform Jew who studied religion at Harvard as an undergraduate. The film also cleverly makes use of the mythic stories found in Jewish folklore as it explores issues of life and death in a particularly novel manner, expertly mixing comedy and tragedy.
It opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
The film revolves around the way that Shmuel (Géza Röhrig, of 2015's Son of Saul), a Hasidic cantor, becomes afflicted by nightmares in the wake of his wife's death. In one gruesome dream, he sees her toenail rotting away and disintegrating. He's so troubled by these thoughts that he even takes to falling asleep on her gravesite. When he asks his rabbi to explain how her body rots into the ground, the rabbi simply tells him to not think about such things.
As a result, Shmuel visits a local mortician as he attempts to understands how bodies decompose. The guy jokingly tells him to visit a scientist to get the answer to that question, so Shmuel goes to the local university. There, he develops a friendship with Albert (Matthew Broderick), a community college biology professor who jokes that Shmuel should bury a pig if he wants to see decomposition in action. Shmuel takes him up on it and does the deed. "This is all kinds of wrong," Albert tells him as Shmuel, who retrieved the animal from a local restaurant known for its dumplings, takes him to the gravesite.
Their search for the answer to Shmuel's question then takes them to a forensic farm, where they hope they can see some human bodies in various states of decomposition, even if it means breaking into the place.
A festival favorite that isn't quite powerful enough to merit an Oscar nod, To Dust features two terrific performances from Broderick and Röhrig, a guy who fully inhabits the character of a grieving man in search of unattainable answers.