The seeds for Jewish director Shawn Snyder’s feature-film debut, “To Dust,” a dark comedy about death, grew out of his own experience, after his mother died 10 years ago.
“I come from a Reform Jewish background, which offers a timeline and a guidance through the grief process,” Snyder said. “I’ve always felt that the Jewish understanding of death was profound, but after losing my mom, I didn’t think the guidance offered was sufficient enough for what I was feeling.”
One way he dealt with his grief was through humor, an approach that shines through in the comic pathos of his film, which started a limited theatrical run last week after screening at the Sedona International Film Festival on Feb. 26.
The movie stars Geza Rohrig as Shmuel, a Chasidic widower seeking answers from a science professor (Matthew Broderick) about the process of decomposition after death. Shmuel, a cantor whose wife died of cancer, has come to the end of what is considered an acceptable period of mourning, but he can’t seem to stop grieving. He is haunted by night terrors about his wife’s deteriorating body, fearing her soul will suffer until her body has completely decomposed.
Shmuel’s grief is so consuming, he is unable to return to work or attend to his duties as a father. Not getting the help he seeks from his own community, Shmuel ventures outside his Chasidic world for answers.
His quest leads him to Albert (Broderick), a passionless community college biology professor. The two go on several misadventures involving more than one dead pig and a road trip to the famed Body Farm in Tennessee.
While Shmuel becomes more distant as his obsession with the scientific process grows, his two sons come to believe Shmuel is possessed by a dybbuk. They watch a VHS tape of the 1937 Yiddish film “The Dybbuk” to understand more. While the film would be considered campy by today’s standards, it absolutely terrifies the two children.
It’s a funny scene, but the film effectively shows their fear without mocking them. This was deliberate: Snyder worked with people raised in Chasidic communities to make sure his portrayals were respectful.
Intimate camera work and methodical, slow blocking creates an odd sense of discomfort throughout the film. The audience is always a tad too close to the macabre realities of bodily decay. This film is not for the squeamish, as it can be difficult to watch at times.
Despite some of the more graphic images, however, the movie remains endearing. Shmuel and Albert’s journey is enjoyable and very funny at times — thanks to Rohrig and Broderick’s realistic banter, which highlights their different perspectives and assumptions about each other. At one point, when the two kill a pig, Rohrig deadpans, “We killed a pig and the goyim didn’t even get to eat it.”
Broderick maintains his usual likability as he portrays the bumbling science professor, but his character’s arc leaves a lot to be desired. There doesn’t seem to be much of a rationale for him to agree to do everything Shmuel asks him to. The audience can understand the morbid curiosity, but there are some scenarios that seem as if they should have crossed a line for Albert.
Perhaps if Albert was dealing with his own grief as well, it would explain his desire to help Shmuel. Still, Albert is never an unwanted presence and it is interesting to see him try to offer some kind of closure to his new Chasidic friend — even though he doesn’t understand anything about Judaism.
Snyder said one of the greatest parts of the film’s release has been getting to see audience reactions.
“When we have a Q&A, I get to interact with both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences and at times it really feels like group therapy,” Snyder said. “We always felt that the film could be for everybody, but I could only get that way by writing it from such a personal place.” JN