Albert is no Mr. Wizard. He is an embittered community college professor gone to seed, but Shmuel wouldn’t know the difference. For the Hasidic cantor, any participation in scientific inquiry is sinful, but the recent death of his wife leads to a desperate obsession with human decomposition in Shawn Snyder’s Best New Narrative Award winning To Dust, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
Shmuel takes Orthodox teaching very seriously, particularly the part about “dust to dust.” In fact, he becomes consumed with anxiety, worrying his beloved wife’s soul will be in torment until her body fully returns to the earth. His concern is so troubling, he will even sin himself by seeking answers at a local community college. The initial meeting with Albert goes badly—the cantor keeps calling the professor “doctor” and the professor keeps calling the cantor “rabbi.” Nevertheless, the divorced, pot-smoking instructor tries to give Shmuel some answers using a rather graphic 1960 study of pig decomposition. Imagine his surprise when Shmuel drags him into his own practical experiments, using swine.
To Dust probably sounds like it pushes the line of good taste, given the prominence of dead pigs in the narrative. However, it is refreshingly thoughtful and sensitive it the ways it addresses Orthodox Judaism. Above all else, this is a deeply mournful film that readily forgives its characters’ foibles and excesses. There are indeed some rather grisly images, including the archival footage from 1960 and some morbid nightmare sequences, but they are always counter-balanced by the human element. It could very well appeal to the audience for Avishai’s Sivan’s Tikkun, but it is a dramatically warmer, more grounded, and more humanistic film.
Géza Röhrig (from Son of Saul) is quite remarkable as Shmuel. It is a quiet performance, but his anguish always feels very real and acutely pressing. He develops genuine chemistry with Matthew Broderick’s Albert that is hard to define or describe but is tangibly potent. Even though Broderick is playing another self-loathing man-child, he does his best work in years teasing out humanizing subtleties in the failed academic.
To Dust is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation-supported film, which speaks volumes about the seriousness of Snyder and co-screenwriter Jason Begue’s science. Viewers could probably even recreate some of the experiments, but we would advise against trying that. Yet, it is the not-quite-buddy relationship that really lies at the core of the film. For extra added novelty, Ron Perlman served as one of the producers, so you’d better take note. Highly recommended, To Dust screens again Saturday night (4/28) and twice on Sunday (4/29), as an award-winner, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.