In David Lowery's Ghost Story, the camera fixates on a decaying corpse fading from flesh to bones in swift 30-second cuts. To Dust lingers its camera on a fresh corpse with a similar mundanity, except with a dash of irreverence. To the tune of Tom Waits's song “Blow Wind Blow,” attendants wash a nude woman’s corpse in a Jewish ritual, known as Tahara. As we observe this rite, we confront the sacrilegious framing of a sanctified process as the corpse's rump is shown and scrubbed to an existentially secular song.
Matter-of-fact gazes at corpses will resurface in To Dust, Shawn Snyder’s directorial debut. With a plot motivated by cultural specificity, there is a universality to its exploration of mourning rites. The film questions the treatment of bodies, the cultural rituals, the burial procedures, and ceremonies as attempts to hold agency over saying goodbye. Some accept differing narratives of how the soul lives on, is punished or rewarded or preserved. Some accept the narrative that the soul has faded from the shell.
The widowed Hasidic cantor Shmuel (Géza Röhrig with a controlled grimace), has his own beliefs and rituals as employed by his Jewish faith. He prays and cuts his clothes when his wife breathes her last breath. But he becomes haunted by macabre visions of his wife’s corpse. In his spirituality, until the body decays—turns “to dust”—his wife’s soul, her neshamah, is still around. In his heart and dreams, his wife's soul suffers on Earth as long as her cadaver is intact.
Shmuel finds no satisfactory answers in his community’s teachings. He commits a sin by venturing outside his insular community onto a college campus to seek the counsel of Albert (Matthew Broderick), a dispassionate biology professor. Shmuel is after a scientific answer to his spiritual question: How long until his wife’s body decomposes so that her soul will be free? The relentless candor drags the professor into a series of homemade experiments and investigation, involving the theft, slaughter, and burial of a pig, to track the decomposition process of his late wife. Why Broderick’s character plays along with the morbid shenanigans, other than being a pushover, is deliberately unsaid, though the professor seems to believe that he is doing his duty as a teacher.
Amid all the corporeal drama, To Dust is also an amusing examination on transgressions, whether there are committed against a personal faith or societal boundaries. Shmuel’s search for answers outside his community is transgressive. The running gag where Albert mispronounces Shmuel’s name and calls the cantor a rabbi, despite constant correction, is transgressive. Shmuel invading the hapless professor’s life, barging into the latter’s apartment with a stolen pig, is transgressive. Shmuel knows his sin of stealing and offing someone else's pig is transgressive but he's going to make his sin worth his journey. Transgressions of words and deeds are motivated by recognizable humanity.
There are no easy answers to Shmuel’s crisis of bereavement. But Shmuel’s final deed allows some agency, a transgressive finality in a cathartic resurrection of grief. To Dust ribs at the absurdities of the human mourning rites and beliefs while also validating them. If we are to understand our existence and the impending end of it, transgression may be necessary. For all the irreverence that occurs, the film begins and closes on a sacred hymn.
To Dust comes to theaters on February 8.