Life, after death

'To Dust' examines what happens to our remains, and those who remain behind, after we die.

to dust film image
Albert (Matthew Broderick), left, and Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) retain their composure while studying decomposition in the new film "To Dust."

While it doesn't explore the "world to come," the new film To Dust does discuss what happens in this world after someone dies -- what happens to the deceased person's physical remains, and what happens to those who remain alive.

For Chasidic cantor Shmuel -- played by Son of Saul star Geza Rohrig -- the death of his wife brings tremendous angst, even nightmares. The sooner the body disintegrates, the sooner her soul-and his-can be free to move on, he believes. So, he tries to learn what happens to a human body, once it's buried. 

The closest thing he can find to an authority on the matter is Albert, a foul-mouthed science professor at a local community college, played by Matthew Broderick. Albert shows Shmuel a book about the physical process of decay, a graphic part of the film. But Shmuel is not satisfied. He needs to see what happens, and his methods become increasingly, well, unorthodox -- even unkosher. 

At one point, Albert suggests they visit a facility that studies decomposition to help identify time-of-death for crimes. Shmuel's reaction, "It's fakakta ! (ridiculous in Yiddish)" To which Albert replies, "No, it's forensic!"

Shmuel's increasingly odd behavior starts a rumor that he is inhabited by his wife's dybbuk , or a possessing spirit. So, his two young sons set about exorcizing his supernatural possession. This involves everything from stolen copy of the 1930s Yiddish movie The Dybbuk to a literal rude awakening, with a shofar.

Despite the morbid subject matter, there is humor here; the film has even been described as a dark comedy. And while many comedies involve odd-couple buddies on road trips, few have the difference between the buddies being religion and science. 

Many movies also have characters who die. In many action movies, the deaths may as well be of video game characters. But here, the death of one character we never even meet, and what happens in the aftermath of that death, drives the entire story. 

To Dust takes a closer look at death than most movies have ever dared. We see what a hospital staff does to a body. We observe how the chevra kadisha -the Jewish burial society-treats a body. We watch a dead animal at various stages of decomposition. We hear the confessions of a casket salesman.

Little of this is pleasant. But all of it is real. And most of it is purposely kept a mystery. To Dust is not an easy film, but it is an important one. It draws back the veil, or shroud, on a massively taboo subject. 

The movie is the first feature-length film by co-writer Shawn Snyder. He wrote it to help him cope with the passing of his mother, who died a decade ago. He appreciated the "guideposts to grief" provided by Jewish tradition, he said. Still, he felt it was necessary to show that, "All mourning is individual and idiosyncratic, but sometimes laws can override individual wishes."

Rohrig said can relate to his character, as he lost his father. This loss "makes it harder," to portray a grieving person, he said, "but it makes it possible."

Helping him play a Chasidic character were his experiences attending a Chasidic yeshiva. While honoring that world, he said, he still wanted the depiction of Shmuel to be "brave and honest." He needed to make the character as individual as possible, Rohrig explained, so that he would, ironically, become more universally relatable. Or, as he put it, "If you want to make a larger sound, you have to blow through the smaller end of the trumpet." 

To Dust is only Rohrig's second film, and while his roles thus far have been Jewish, he says that what attracts him to roles is that they be serious. 

And what subject is more serious than death? In our society, Snyder said, "We don't have a healthy relationship to death. Thinking about it is natural, but we repress these thoughts. But at some point, we have to confront the reality, to sign the DNR."

As to the theme of "dust to dust" referred to in the film's title, Snyder said there is "spiritual beauty" in the concept of returning to the earth after death. As he puts it, "I find the idea of turning into a tree comforting." 

''To Dust' opens on February 15 at AMC River East, Old Orchard, Renaissance, and The Wilmette Theater.

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