“To Dust” review

Psychoanalysts and philosophers like Nietzsche have long reflected on the paradox with which modern people struggle between spirituality and science. Director / screenwriter Shawn Snyder captures this schism in his first feature film, to dust.

Geza Rohrig (from Son of Saul glory) plays Shmuel, a Hasidic Jew mourning the recent death of his wife. The vivid nightmares of his wife’s corpse contribute to a fit of depression that leaves him reluctant to sing for his synagogue and properly care for his two sons. Hours of prayer and consultation with his rabbi do nothing to solve this problem, so he goes to a community college one day to try to talk to a “scientist.” There, Shmuel is introduced to the goofy science professor Albert (Matthew Broderick, quite unrecognizable with a gray beard and glasses). Albert tries to reject Shmuel’s unexpected request for a meeting, but Shmuel begs, pointing out that, “It’s a sin that I’m here.”

The Hasidic Jew and the community college professor thus become an eccentric couple devoted to learning more about death. They read an illustrated book on the process of post-mortem decomposition (via a pig carcass, as pigs are very similar in composition to humans). This prompts them to bury a freshly killed pig to observe the decomposition process firsthand. The ensuing lulz is reinforced by the irony that Jews are meant to avoid pigs, which are seen as ungodly animals.

to dust fundamentally concerns the existential crisis of the human condition. Shmuel is a dedicated member and participant of his local synagogue. Nevertheless, Judaism fails him in its darkest hours. Ironically, religion actually deepens Shmuel’s blockages. All Jewish superstitions about the human soul give rise to concerns about the eternal fate of the soul of Shmuel’s wife. Shmuel’s sons are also worried about dibbuk, ghosts who can possess people. Judaism, in particular, is very ambiguous about the afterlife; there is no consensus on whether or not there is gulgulim (reincarnation), Olam-Ha-Ba (Heaven), Gehinnom (purgatory) or Sheol (Hell, but potentially for good and bad souls ). Jewish existentialism also became a much more controversial issue after the Holocaust.


Shmuel turns to Albert and his scientific outlook for the answers to his questions. They read about taphonomy, experiment with a dead pig named Harold, and test burial soil samples. Ultimately, all of this makes no sense to Shmuel’s psyche. Science is no more useful in answering questions about the “human soul” than religion. The fear of death is a burden that we all must carry, as intelligent beings. There is no possible way to prove or disprove what happens to a person’s consciousness after death. This is just one example of the limits of human understanding. There is no quick fix for eliminating loneliness, hopelessness, addiction, prejudice or other neuroses. In the knowledge age, there is still a lot we don’t know about the most basic of human psychological puzzles.

to dust does a good job of exploring this existential equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The premise is very relevant and well articulated by the performance of Geza Rohrig. Matthew Broderick has a good relationship with Rohrig as a skeptical sidekick. The script juggles well with dark humor and personal drama. It is fascinating to learn more about Judaic thought and the process of human decomposition. The nightmare sequences and rowboat scenes in the film are hauntingly beautiful. The film could have juggled the main plot and the two-wire subplot better, but Shawn Snyder delivered a winning film overall.

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