To Dust: Chasidic Jew Has Existential Questions

Matthew Broderick and Géza Röhrig in To Dust, a Good Deed Entertainment release. Photo credit: Lily Rosenthal.

To Dust seeks to ask some existential questions about death by way of an absurdist comedy about a grieving Chasidic cantor and a divorced biology teacher.

The film starts out with a series of quotes including from Kohelet 12:7:  “Then the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to G-d who gave it.”  The film takes a literal approach to these words rather than Rashi’s interpretation.  The debate over what these words really mean is meant for someone with a higher pay grade.  You know what they say?  Two Jews, three opinions!

Director/co-writer Shawn Snyder–who is Jewish–channels his own experiences of mourning into that of Shmuel, a Chasidic cantor from Upstate New York.  Here’s a guy who does everything that Jewish tradition asks of him following the passing of Rivkah yet he still doesn’t feel whole.  This includes tearing his clothing, sitting shiva, and the shloshim period.  He’s a grieving widow so nobody can  really blame him for having such feelings.

Maybe it’s because I know a number of Chasidic Jews but I don’t think I’ve ever met one similar to Shmuel.  It’s possible that I’m wrong but I’ve never met a Chasidic Jew who questions faith with regards to the body after death.  Maybe it’s because we’re all waiting for Moshiach and have a deep-rooted belief that we’ll return to Jerusalem when the Moshiach finally arrives.  This is among my main reason for why I can’t really buy into To Dust for what it is trying to sell.  To each their own, I suppose.  I get that everyone has their own way of mourning and grieving never truly ends.  We may do a great job at hiding it but the reality is that the pain is still there.

Shmuel finds himself turning to science to get answers to questions because Haredi Judaism doesn’t have the answers.  This may sound like an oxymoron for any of us with any kind familiarity with Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.  Maybe Shmuel would be open to looking into Open Orthodoxy?  Anyway, Shmuel starts to get some answers by way of divorced professor Albert (Matthew Broderick), who teaches biology at a community college.  Or at least this is Shmuel’s hope.  The two go on a sort of buddy comedy together as they dive into forensic anthropology.  The pair may be the oddest odd couple pairing since The Odd Couple themselves!

To what absurd heights do the co-writers Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue take the premise?  Well, Shmuel goes as far as to steal and slaughter a pig!  This is only to study the decaying process!  Wait a minute–you actually thought he would eat it?!?

An absurdist comedy with quite the odd couple pairing, To Dust seeks to answer some tough questions.

DIRECTOR:  Shawn Snyder
SCREENWRITERS: Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue
CAST:  Géza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick

Good Deed Entertainment opened To Dust in theaters on February 8, 2019. To Dust premiered during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival as a Special Screening. Grade: 3.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.