To Dust is a film that explores the intersection of science and religion in a way that is remarkably unique. Géza Röhrig, star of the Academy Award winning Son of Saul who is himself Orthodox, plays Schmuel, a Hasidic cantor who is struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his wife. His grief surfaces in an obsessive desire to understand the decomposition process. He simply can't rest until he knows all the details of how long it will take until she is literally returned to dust, as well as all the physical changes that will be occurring to her decomposing body.
Oh, I told you guys this is a comedy, right?
Only problem is, as a strictly observant Hasidic Jew, science has not been a large element of his education, nor is it necessarily encouraged for him to seek out answers that have a scientific rather than religious basis. So to help him on his weird little academic quest, he enlists the aid of a community college biology professor, Albert, played to the height of exasperation by Matthew Broderick. And by "enlist the aid", I mean to say that he just showed up at one of Albert's classes and started asking some pretty creepy questions from the back of the room.
Yes, this is definitely a comedy. And what's more, it's a buddy comedy. Schmuel and Albert are an unlikely pair, but while Albert agrees to help Schmuel mostly to rid himself of the intensely awkward widower, he becomes more and more invested in the project as time goes by. Their mission begins small, reading from a textbook about the exact process of decomposition (intercut with some truly gross visuals so beware of that lest you upchuck your popcorn). But before long, their antics grow to outlandish extremes, killing and burying a pig to track its decomposition and lying their way into a body farm to get an up close and personal look at decaying human corpses.
(Also body farms are a real thing and although they're super macabre, this movie has me thinking about what to do with my own corpse and I would be lying if I said donating to a body farm wasn't solidly in the third place at the moment.)
To Dust achieves a remarkable balance between the humor in the relationship between these two unlikely friends and the sheer fuckupedness of their actions throughout the film. Schmuel is acting unpredictably, to be sure, but his profound sadness and search for unknowable answers are things that we as an audience can connect with. It's interesting to watch all of this play out through the lens of the Orthodox church, where there is such ritual that surrounds the grief process. Is there room in this deeply religious environment for an exploration of grief that falls outside the rigid parameters of loss within the Hasidic teachings?
As bizarre as Schmuel's obsession becomes and as unfamiliar as the Hasidic sect is for most of us watching the film, it nonetheless strikes a chord that is rewarding and engaging to watch. The character work done by Röhrig is surprising yet entirely honest, and his interactions with the long-suffering Broderick are consistently hilarious. The emotional range exhibited in To Dust, both from the actors as well as through the careful direction of Shawn Snyder (who also co-wrote the film), shows innate skill and provides a tremendous amount of resonance that ultimately make it a success.