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Movie Review

Ashes to ashes, the Book says. Dust to dust. The spirit may be eternal, but the body is not. We die and rot, crumble and fade. Slowly, we vanish into the earth from whence we came.

But when?

This is no academic question for Shmuel, a Hasidic Jewish cantor grieving the death of his wife. Or, at least it's not a purely academic one.

Schmuel believes that the union between body and soul is complex, with each being tethered to the other in mysterious, mystical ways. So his rabbis have taught him, and so he believes.

But grief can push the mind in unexpected directions, and so it is with Schmuel. Now he dreams about his dead wife—not as she was, but as she is, or how she imagines her dead body to be. He dreams, especially, of her big toe—spliting, unfolding, a flower of skin and blood.

He imagines his wife's eternal spirit still tied to her decaying mortal body. And until that body turns to dust, her spirit will be in tethered torment.

“I fear for her, rabbi, how she suffers now,” he admits.

But Schmuel's spiritual worries lead to an unusual academic question: How long does it take for a body to turn to dust?

The rabbis are no help. Such questions would be off-putting, perhaps even blasphemous. The casket salesman he asks loses interest when he realizes there's no chance for a sale. So Schmuel turns to Albert, a community college biology teacher with a knack for mispronouncing words. Perhaps he has the answers Schmuel seeks.

Albert has no real answers at first. But he does know that scientists, when they study many facets of human biology without using actual humans, often turn to pigs. Turns out pigs have the same general ratio of fat to muscle to bone as humans. Their skin and hair is about the same. And when it comes to decomposition, well, there’s no question that maggots and bacteria and such appreciate the “general deliciousness” of a putrifying pig.

“Who doesn’t like bacon?” Albert asks.

Well, Hasidic Jews for starters, given that pigs pretty much top the “unclean animals” list.

But Schmuel is desparate for answers. And if a pig can help him find some, he’ll have to find a pig.

Positive Elements

To Dust explores grief, specifically the strange forms it can take and the strange steps that surviving people take in order to process it. And while this movie could most certainly offend some steeped in Judaism, that doesn’t seem to be its intent. The sensitivity that the story shows its grieving central character illustrates that.

Schmuel’s world was rocked by his wife’s death. So he turns to his faith but gets no solace from it, at least not in the moment. He struggles to process his wife's passing as best he can. Each time we see Schmuel on camera (played powerfully by Géza Röhrig), we can almost feel his anguish and desperation.

Those around Schmuel try to help as best they can. His mother shows what patience she can muster, but she encourages him to move on. His two young sons, Noam and Naftali, are deeply worried for their father even as they, too, grieve over their mother.

But it’s Albert—a wholly secular professor whom Schmuel shouldn’t, technically, have anything to do with—who becomes the cantor’s greatest (if reluctant) support during Schmuel’s troubled time. Albert sacrifices his time and energy and, admittedly, breaks a few laws in their shared quest to give Schmuel the spiritual peace he seeks.

Spiritual Content

To Dust is an inherently spiritual story, and Schmuel’s religious convictions are critical to its telling. The story, in a very real way, becomes a crisis of faith for him. He’s stopped singing, for one thing. When he prays, he does so like a madman, as if trying to shake loose the doubts and disturbances in his soul.

His behavior is so erratic that it leads to some gossip among the children.

“Your dad ate a dybbuk,” one child tells Noam and Naftali—a reference to the restless, evil spirits of Jewish legend. Noam and Naftali wonder if it’s true, so they steal a VHS copy of a 1937 horror movie by that name to “investigate” that possibility. The boys come to believe that their father has somehow ingested the dybbuk of their dead mother, so they sneak into Schmuel’s room late one night and perform an exorcism.

“Dybbuk, get out,” Noam says to Schmuel’s big toe (the point of exit, he believes, for any such wayward spirit). “Get out immediately.” “And we love you,” Naftali adds.

It’s interesting, this reference, given Schmuel’s own preoccupation with his wife’s big toe. And perhaps the man has been “possessed” in a way—tormented and haunted by the thought of his wife’s restless spirit. He certainly commits a bevy of acts that his Jewish friends would call blasphemous. And indeed, the boys feel a great deal of relief after the “exorcism,” and when they see Schmuel sewing up the coat he tore in ceremonial grief.

Albert admits that he knows nothing about souls, suggesting at one point that perhaps the most noble way to think about our own mortality is to realize that our bodies eventually become very good fertilizer. Someone tells Schmuel (apparently in an effort to convert him) that Jesus loves him, and that his wife is in Jesus’ hands. We see lots of Jewish characters pray and chant and sing, and we hear some tangentially theological discussions.

Albert makes passing reference to how other religious traditions deal with death. We see Schmuel’s wife’s body prepared for burial—a process involving prayers and ritualistic washing and salt. We learn that Hasidic Jews bury their dead in simple pine boxes with three holes in them, so that the bodies can have contact with the earth below.

Schmuel takes his boys out to the middle of a lake in a boat, telling them that he feels particularly close to his mother there for some reason. He demands that they speak to her—saying aloud how much they love her. They’re terrified of their father in this moment, with Noam telling Schmuel that in no way is what they’re doing “Jewish.” Schmuel doesn’t care.

Sexual Content

Though the preparation of Schmuel's wife's body for burial isn't sexual in any way, we do glimpse exposed parts of her corpse, including her buttocks. We see naked corpses elsewhere, too.

A grieving Schmuel touches his wife’s wig (she died of cancer) and places a dress under it, as if somehow trying to pretend she’s still alive. Naftali sees his father do this and interprets it as a sign of the dybbuk, and it's perhaps implied that Naftali thinks his father has been wearing his deceased mother's clothes. Albert lounges around in what seems to be a woman’s bathrobe.

As Albert and Schmuel talk about the night they killed and buried a pig (more on that momentarily), a man wanders near them. To his ear, it must sound like they’re talking about a torrid one-night stand. Albert says that it was “a wild, exhilarating night,” but adds, “I don’t think we should see each other” again.

Schmuel’s mother suggests that he should consider marrying again. He meets with a woman suggested for him. They talk awkwardly, but the woman seems very understanding—telling him that it’s OK if he's still in love with his deceased wife.

Schmuel's Hasidic Jewish faith prohibits him from talking with women, especially those outside his religious tradition. But his grief compels him to seek answers in the secular world, where he needs to speak to a female receptionist at one point. To do so, Schmuel resorts to hastily written handwritten notes to her in order to make his wishes known.

Violent Content

It's time to talk about the pig. Schmuel steals one—a big one—and takes it to Albert’s house in the hopes that they’ll kill it and bury it. Albert at first refuses, but when Schmuel wraps a bag around the pig’s head and then, oddly, answers Albert’s phone, Albert apparently suffocates the pig off-camera. (Albert feels that because they've taken its life, he and Schmuel need to give the dead pig a name, so he dubs it Harold.)

They bury Harold in a pine box, just as Schmuel’s wife would’ve been buried. And they periodically check on its "progress" in decomposing. When Albert suggests they shouldn’t do that, Schmuel becomes enraged—thinking that perhaps they took a life for no purpose.

“His blood is on our hands!” he says.

“His mud is on my carpet,” Albert counters.

We see time-lapse footage of a pig decaying, while Albert describes in graphic detail the process of nature breaking it down. Another pig corpse is seen, as well.

We see human bodies, too, all of them in varying states of rot and decay, and one seems to be almost completely skeletonized.

Schmuel pounds his fist on a car hood a couple of times in anguished frustration. His youngest boy is terrified watching The Dybbuk (though what we see isn’t all that scary). We witness some of Schmuel’s deeply disturbing and grotesque night terrors. A casket salesman tells Schmuel that sometimes, in the tightly sealed coffins, bodies actually explode.

Crude or Profane Language

The f-word is used nearly 40 times, with the s-word filtering into the dialogue another 15 or so. We also hear “g-dd--n” and about five abuses of Jesus’ name.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Albert rolls what appears to be a marijuana joint in his house. When Schmuel stops by, Albert offers him it, but Schmuel refuses it. Albert then partakes of it.

Other Negative Elements

[Spoiler Warning] As mentioned, Schmuel breaks several laws during the movie—some of which he believes to be God’s, and others a little more secular and concrete—including stealing a pig, breaking into a “body farm” (where forensic investigators measure human bodily decay under a variety of conditions) and digging up a corpse. He also flushes a bunch of gefilte fish down the toilet to free up a jar.

Conclusion

To Dust begins with two quotes. One is from Ecclesiastes (using its Hebrew name of Kohelet): “When the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return unto God who gave it.” The other comes from the band Jethro Tull: “God is an overwhelming responsibility.”

And so it is. To believe in God is comforting, but to follow Him—to follow Him as we know we ought—can be really difficult, especially when our own flesh is so weak and has so many other ideas.

To Dust delves deeply into that friction. Schmuel knows what he’s been taught. He knows he should move on. But grief twists and tortures him, like a dybbuk might, perhaps. He’s possessed by his own fears and is anxious for the soul of his beloved wife. His all-consuming quest for understanding is a compulsion he’s unable to reject—not for his children’s sake, and not for his own.

To Dust is one of the strangest and, in its own way, truest depictions of grief I’ve ever seen on film.

But that doesn’t mitigate the film’s foul language, which feels gratuitous here. And while I appreciated the respect the film showed for Schmuel’s sincere piety, those convictions certainly diverge from those that Christians hold to with regard to life after death. In fact, the lone Christian we meet here is well-meaning, but treated as a bit of a joke.

To Dust is itself a well-meaning joke of a film—funny and tragic and sincere but oddly empty at its core. Like Schmuel, it has no answers. For those we must look elsewhere.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Géza Röhrig as Shmuel; Matthew Broderick as Albert; Leo Heller as Noam; Sammy Voit as Naftali; Linda Frieser as Wake Goer; Bern Cohen as Reb Goshen

Director

Shawn Snyder ( )

Distributor

Good Deed Entertainment

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

February 8, 2019

On Video

May 7, 2019

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

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Teens
Adults
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