To Dust


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

To Dust
"To its great distinction, To Dust is concerned with the spirit in physical things." | Photo: Lily Rosenthal

Shmuel (Géza Röhrig, star of László Nemes's Oscar-winning Son Of Saul), a Hasidic cantor and father of two young boys, Noam (Leo Heller) and Naftali (Sammy Voit), loses his wife to cancer. In his grief, he cannot rid himself of thoughts of her deteriorating body and that a part of her soul remains with the remains until she has turned fully to dust. How can he ease her suffering?

After the advice within his Orthodox community, through his rabbi (Ben Hammer), fails him and a funeral parlour employee (Joseph Siprut) suggests he turn to science ("Can I let you in on a little secret there, handsome?"), a rather unorthodox adventure begins in Shawn Snyder's To Dust (winner of the New Narrative Director Competition and Audience Award at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival).

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Now completely at a loss, Shmuel ends up consulting and badgering Albert (Matthew Broderick), a community college "science teacher", who, stuck in the mud of his own lonely and misunderstood existence, turns out to be a most remarkable and convincible teammate in the search for enlightenment. The widower's persistence and his very very inquisitive nature pay off. He even interrupts a conference with a concerned student, prompting Albert to state "I'm trying to office hour with Stanley (Larry Owens) here." The use of "office hour" as a verb is one of the many flourishes that elevate the interactions into a sphere that is simultaneously absurd and very much in the present.

While this is going on Shmuel's sons do some clandestine research of their own. They believe that a Dybbuk, an ancient spirit creature from Jewish mythology, may have entered their father and be responsible for his behaviour turning stranger and stranger every day. They pop in a VHS copy of Micha? Waszy?ski's 1937 Yiddish-language Polish film, The Dybbuk, hoping to find answers and mistaking what they are watching for a manual on exorcism.

To its great distinction, To Dust is concerned with the spirit in physical things: the rough plank of wood used to steady the body of the deceased being washed, the grin of the tiny animal skeleton on the professor's desk, and the almost mystical Dybbuk tape. Far from incidental, these details are essential to make sense of what we see. Naming is an important theme and pigs are in peril, so beware. Only Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry outdoes To Dust with the digging up and down.

The well-matched men on a mission, Shmuel and Albert, go on a road trip to a body farm. The late-night intruders receive an admonishment and reprieve from security guard Stella by Starlight (the wonderful Natalie Carter). Her understanding is a welcomed relief for the duo who up until that point were feeding off each other's neediness which subsisted on an us-against-the-world mentality. The two men have astounding chemistry in their misadventures.

To Dust strikes a most unusual chord. What does it mean to mourn? Rituals put in place to aid the process of coming to terms with a death, may also throw the mourner into a maelstrom of obsession born from bereavement. This is the soil from which the friendship blossoms between Shmuel and Albert. If you expect Géza Röhrig to stay in the register of desperate, detached compulsion that he perfected as Saul Ausländer in Son Of Saul, you're in for a surprise.

Snyder's comedy of decomposition, co-written with Jason Begue, shot by Xavi Giménez, music by Tom Waits (Blow Wind Blow), Jethro Tull (Aqualung), and a score by Ariel Marx, is co-produced by Emily Mortimer, Alessandro Nivola (terrific as a rabbi in Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience), and Ron Perlman (who will be participating in Q&As with the director at the Royal and Encino Laemmle Cinemas in Los Angeles this weekend).

At the beginning, a woman's voice sings a lullaby and Shmuel closes the film with the same haunting song in the bedroom of his two boys right before we hear Tom Waits (who was last seen digging in the Coen brothers' The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs) blow dust over the end credits.

To Dust is a mouldering feast of mortality unlike anything you'll see on screen.

Reviewed on: 13 Feb 2019
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To Dust packshot
Trying to come to terms with the death of his wife, a Hasidic cantor seeks answers on how her body will decay.

Director: Shawn Snyder

Writer: Shawn Snyder, Jason Begue

Starring: Géza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick, Leo Heller, Sammy Voit, Ben Hammer, Natalie Carter, Joseph Siprut, Janet Sarno, Isabelle Phillips, Larry Owens, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Marceline Hugot, Leanne Michelle Watson

Year: 2018

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2018

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