Review by Russell Whitehouse
Psychoanalysts and philosophers like Nietzsche have long mused about the paradox that modern people struggle with between spirituality and science. Director/writer Shawn Snyder captures this schism in his debut feature film, TO DUST.
Geza Rohrig (of SON OF SAUL fame) stars as Shmuel, a Hasidic Jew mourning the recent death of his wife. Vivid nightmares of his wife’s corpse contribute to a bout of depression that leaves him unwilling to sing for his synagogue and properly care for his two sons. Hours of prayer and consulting with his rabbi do nothing to solve this problem, so he one day visits a community college to try to talk to a “scientist”. There, Shmuel is introduced to bumbling science teacher Albert (Matthew Broderick, fairly unrecognizable in a grey beard and glasses). Albert tries to blow off Shmuel’s unannounced request for a meeting, but the latter begs, pointing out that, “This is sinful that I’m here.”
The Hasidic Jew and the community college professor thus become an oddball couple devoted to learning more about death. They read an illustrated book about the post-mortem decomposition process (via a pig corpse, since pigs are compositionally very similar to humans). This inspires them to bury a freshly killed pig to observe the decomposition process firsthand. The lulz that ensue are enhanced by the irony that Jews are supposed to avoid swine, which are considered unholy animals.
TO DUST is fundamentally about the existential crisis of the human condition. Shmuel is a devoted member and participant in his local synagogue. Nonetheless, Judaism fails him in his darkest hour. Ironically, religion actually deepens Shmuel’s hang-ups. All of the Jewish superstitions about the human soul elicit worry about the eternal fate of Shmuel’s wife’s soul. Shmuel’s sons also worry about dibbuk, ghosts who can possess people. Judaism in particular is very ambiguous about the afterlife; there is no consensus about whether or not there is gulgulim (reincarnation), Olam-Ha-Ba (Heaven), Gehinnom (purgatory) or Sheol (Hell, but potentially for good and bad souls alike). Jewish existentialism also became a much more contentious 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 grave soil samples. Ultimately, this is all meaningless to Shmuel’s psyche. Science is no more useful in answering questions about the “human soul” than religion. Fear of death is a burden that we must all bear, as intelligent beings. There’s no possible way of proving or disproving what happens to a person’s consciousness after dying. This is just one example of the limits of human understanding. There is no magic bullet that can eliminate loneliness, hopelessness, addiction, prejudice or other neuroses. In the age of knowing, there is still much we don’t know about the most basic of human psychological conundrums.
TO DUST does a good job of exploring this existential equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The premise is very relatable and well-articulated by Geza Rohrig’s performance. Matthew Broderick has good rapport with Rohrig as the skeptical sidekick. The script nicely juggles black humor and personal drama. It’s fascinating learning more about both Judaic thought and the human decomposition process. The film’s nightmare sequences and rowboat scenes are hauntingly beautiful. The film could have done a better job of juggling the main plot and the two-sons-subplot, but Shawn Snyder has overall delivered a winning film.