To Dust, the dark, irreverent film executive-produced by Jed Webber P’27 and released Friday, is both a comedy and a provocative meditation on death, grief, and faith. Shmuel, a Hasidic Jew, and Albert, a lonely science professor, form more than just a funny pair; together they unpack the terrifying mystery of death.
The men are chased by different demons, yet each is staring into the void. Shmuel is tortured by visions of his recently deceased wife’s decomposing body, and he worries about the pain her soul is experiencing before her body becomes dust. Leaning into the spiritual pull, he experiments with strange experiences—burying a pig, sleeping in the middle of a lake—to try to comprehend his wife’s mortality and free himself of his despair. Shmuel justifies violating religious law to access an emotional depth where he can regain connection with the spiritual. Part of what Shmuel needs to be able to feel that his wife’s soul is at peace is the rationalization science can provide in establishing empirical reality. Shmuel is convinced that when he can visualize and understand how his wife’s body is disintegrating, and at what rate, his worry about her soul’s discomfort will have an end.
Albert, alternatively, appears deeply bored and dissatisfied with his life as a bachelor. He works at a community college where he has only one engaged student who is not particularly smart. By agreeing to help Shmuel harness science to comprehend death, Albert seems to find faith again himself. When driven by someone else’s purpose, Albert finds color and spirit in his otherwise dull life. While Shmuel uses science as a means of easing his extreme emotions, he invigorates Albert to find greater emotional depth in his work. Shmuel bursts into Albert’s life with a sense of intensity and tenacity that Albert doesn’t have teaching students basic lessons about the life cycle.
The two provide something essential to each other. Albert offers Shmuel the scientific grounding that contextualizes and adds solidity to his faith, while Shmuel breathes life and meaning into Albert’s academic doldrums. Their consistent shtick throughout To Dust benefits the characters as much as the movie—their joking banter is what keeps them sane as they both look squarely at death.
To Dust is a compelling, at times moving, story with plenty of clever and memorable jokes. When Albert is explaining a pH test to Shmuel, for example, he has to clarify that he is saying the word “acidic,” not “Hasidic.” Later, after the two men are caught breaking into a facility where corpses are left to disintegrate for scientific research, the guard tells Shmuel, who wears long sidelocks and Ultra Orthodox clothes, “Jesus loves you” as she releases them.
Géza Rörhig and Matthew Broderick carry the film with their excellent portrayals of the two characters. In a question-and-answer session and reception following the film’s advance screening on March 3 at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre, Producer Alessandro Nivola spoke to the actors’ fitness for the roles. He said that before appearing in the movie, Rörhig actually had experience working at a funeral home preparing cadavers for Jewish burial. And Broderick, whom Nivola described as particular about what roles he undertakes, liked the script enough to play Albert without upfront pay, provided they kept the shooting to a minimum, Nivola said.
To Dust is heavier than its trailer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUnrKohPzpw) suggests but is by no means an all-around downer. It is a worthwhile watch for the actors’ performances alone and an unusual and wonderful story.