BWW Review: Sedona International Film Festival Presents TO DUST ~ Géza Röhrig and Matthew Broderick Shine In A Grave Undertaking!

BWW Review: Sedona International Film Festival Presents TO DUST ~ Géza Röhrig and Matthew Broderick Shine In A Grave Undertaking!

"So, a Hasid and a Biology Professor rob a grave!" What might otherwise be the opening line of a barroom joke may instead be a teaser for TO DUST, a film that delves deeply into what director and co-writer (with Jason Begue) Shawn Snyder frames as "a borderline blasphemous, tragicomic conversation between science and religion, and an exploration of the idiosyncrasies of grief." (The film, released this month, is one of the features at this year's Sedona International Film Festival.)

TO DUST, however, is all that and far more.

It is a strikingly sensitive, whimsical, and intensely human account of a man's struggle not only to reconcile himself to the death of his wife but more importantly to expedite the passage of her soul (neshama) to the Divine.

At the same time, the film is an illuminating exposition of the Jewish perspective on life and death and the hereafter; the ritualistic and attentive cleansing of the deceased (tahara); the prescribed stages of bereavement; the toll that grieving takes on an entire family; and the tension between faith and reason. That is a whole lot of layers to wrap into one film, but Snyder accomplishes the feat masterfully and seamlessly. And, he's blessed us with a great cast.

Géza Röhrig is mesmerizing as Shmuel, a Hasidic shaliach tzibbur (cantor), who is grief-stricken by the death of his wife, Rivka. Tormented by the fear that her soul remains confined in her body and that she is suffering, he seeks answers from his Rebbe and other authorities as to how she will "dismantle in the earth," and how long will it take for her neshama to be freed. He becomes, in effect, self-ordained to fulfill a fundamental belief of Judaism that life does not end with death ~ that, as stated in Ecclesiastes 12:7), "And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God, Who gave it."

His relentless quest for answers takes him to a science lab at New Hempstead Community College where Albert, a quirky and clearly frustrated science teacher (Matthew Broderick, terrific as always), is lecturing an unresponsive class on the inefficiency of ecosystems. Despite his misgivings about Shmuel's unorthodox request to ascertain the details and timing of decomposition (a "mockery of science," he complains), Albert relents and becomes accomplice in an extraordinary undertaking. It's not surprising that Shmuel's pleas are irresistible when the camera zooms in on a guy who, at home, unwinds to weed and rock music and who clearly would be ecstatic to escape the Alcatraz of his classroom.

We watch in jaw-dropping amazement as Shmuel and Albert pore over research regarding the stages of a pig's decomposition, indulge in a macabre "science project" with a dead pig, and take a 150-mile drive to a forensic anthropology research facility (a body farm) in Knoxville, Tennessee. Their epiphany is that Rivka is languishing in soil unsuitable for speedy decay. What ensues is a delicately and tenderly revealed episode of love and fidelity.

What makes this film so captivating and moving is Snyder's mastery in seamlessly juxtaposing Shmuel and Albert's odyssey with the limbo of the lives that, in the meanwhile, Shmuel has left behind. His obsession has affected everyone in his family orbit ~ his mother who frets that he grieves too long; his sons, Naftaly and Noah, who despair that he might be possessed by the dybbuk, a malicious spirit in Jewish mythology. (Their fear is accentuated after they secretively watch scenes from the The Dybbuk, the 1937 Yiddish-language Polish film.)

TO DUST surely has its dark and grotesque moments but it is also invested with genuine humor and tender scenes that are transcendent. For example, by film's end, we have been touched deeply by Shmuel's dedication and insistence, by the ineffable solemnity of boating on a lake with his sons, and by realizing what is ultimately required to resurrect the cantor's voice.

TO DUST is a work of beauty and passion ~ a must-see!

Photo credit to Julie Candelaria

Sedona International Film Festival ~ ~ 928-282-1177

Saturday, February 23rd through Sunday, March 3rd

Purchase passes at

Multiple venues: Mary D. Fisher Theatre, 2030 W. Highway 89A; Harkins Theatres, 2081 W. Highway 89A; Sedona Performing Arts Center, 995 Upper Red Rock Loop Road

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From This Author Herbert Paine

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