' ' Cinema Romantico: To Dust

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

To Dust

As I watched Shawn Snyder’s “To Dust” I kept thinking of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.” Not because they both star Matthew Broderick, though they do, and who, despite his inherent Broderick-ian nature, gives entirely different performances in each one, but because both films function as explorations of grief. In the latter, Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler can barely function with all the grief he carries for what he did while in the former, Shmuel (Géza Röhrig), a Hasidic Jew, struggles to shed his grief after his wife dies. Each film, then, in its own way, is about achieving catharsis. Lee isn’t even sure he deserves it while Shmuel is so desperate to attain it that he essentially forsakes his devout religious beliefs for scientific proof of something cosmic, an odd yet intriguing alchemy that Snyder struggles to lend more than surface-level meaning. No, he’s more interested in using the story’s blasphemousness and just all-around weirdness to emphasize the lengths to which Shmuel will go for release. This is intended to yield dark strains of comedy as the situations grow more peculiar, though the air of emotional suppression remains so acute that any sense of humor is stifled; the yin pulls too hard away from the yang.

“To Dust” opens by soberly recounting the Orthodox preparation of Shmuel’s deceased wife’s body for burial, foreshadowing a film that refuses to shy away from uncompromising images. Shmuel sits shiva and observes a 30-day mourning period but can’t move on, causing his two sons, in a parallel subplot, to fear their father has been overtaken by a Dybbuk – a spirit, per Jewish mythology, possessing a deceased person’s misplaced soul. These spirits, it is said, can only exit via the possessed person’s big toe, undoubtedly connected to Shmuel’s gruesome visions of his wife’s big toe splitting apart, visions he communicates to his Rabbi, explaining he fears another 277 visions still to come since there are 278 total body parts. It’s a deadpan observation that given the sorrowful intensity of the first few minutes nearly stops you in your tracks. Wait, you think, this is funny? Eh, yes and no. Röhrig, still committed to that intense sorrow, lends it the ring of such weariness is counteracts the line’s role as a punchline. Is it any wonder the film turns to Matthew Broderick?

He’s a schlubby biology teacher named Albert at a community college into whose classroom Shmuel wanders one day. This is because Shmuel’s beliefs stress that a deceased person’s soul remains at least partly intact while the body remains too. So Shmuel wants to know how long it takes a body to decompose, that way he’ll know how long her soul will stick around. So he and Albert review the process in a book, where the way Broderick has Albert continue thumbing through the pages after Shmuel departs suggests a lingering curiosity despite his best efforts to push this curious Hasidic man away. Indeed, if this suggests an odd couple – the Jew and the Gentile – that is not quite what emerges. Albert’s own grief is never spelled out but it’s clear his teaching this class is a consolation prize, no culmination, and in a weird bit of humor presaging what’s to come, as he slowly lifts an overhead projector so it slides off his table and crashes to the floor, you see someone whose own life has slipped away. If that leads him to help Shmuel’s strange quest, he’s as much against it as he is for it, not just scene to scene but moment to moment, second to second, evinced in how Broderick’s facial expressions changing on a dime along with his words – “Yes. No.”

Their ensuing quests, to bury a live pig and seek out a body farm in Tennessee, are clearly conceived as comic set pieces, like that swine getting loose in Albert’s home. Snyder, though, a first-time director often makes the mistake of just letting the situation speak for itself, pointing and shooting rather than crafting the comedy through composition and editing. Maybe a more manic performer could have pulled the comedy out, but Broderick’s specialty is down-playing and the humor evaporates. This isn’t helped by a dour color palette that continually emphasizes Shmuel’s long night of the soul. And if Lee Chandler of “Manchester by the Sea” was never sure he deserved catharsis, I’m not sure Shmuel does either, so hesitant does he seem to laugh, an idea coursing through this movie, rendering his grief almost terminal.

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