The Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig, who made a splash in the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul” a few years ago, is back — but not as you remember him. In that shattering Holocaust drama, Röhrig played a Jewish prisoner/laborer at Auschwitz-Birkenau whose job it is to dispose of the remains of gas-chamber victims. In his new film, the darkly comic dramedy “To Dust,” Rohrig plays a slightly clownish, slightly morose contemporary Hasidic cantor named Shmuel at a synagogue in Upstate New York.
And yet there are similarities.
When Shmuel’s wife dies — the inciting incident that opens the film, with the handling of her naked corpse — Shmuel becomes fixated on the question of what happens to her body. In his belief system, a part of the soul — in Hebrew, the neshama — “remains with the remains,” as Shmuel explains it, until she no longer physically remains. The idea that a piece of his wife’s consciousness might still exist — and be suffering — torments him.
In the course of Shmuel’s search for closure and solace, he talks to various people he considers experts: a mortician, a coffin salesman, a rabbi. (If that sounds like the opening of a joke, it kind of is, albeit one whose humor is of a very gentle — and philosophical — bent.)
Eventually, this search leads him to Albert (Matthew Broderick), a recently divorced science teacher at the local community college who offers to help Shmuel understand decomposition through science. In this case, that involves burying the carcass of a pig and periodically checking the progress of its decay.
It is. But the macabre premise is mostly a pretext for Albert and Shmuel to talk and to get to know each other, in a meditation on human mortality and loss that — while slight and only mildly provocative — ends up being surprisingly touching. In this quirky buddy flick, which follows our heroes on a road trip to the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center — a real place that is colloquially known as the Body Farm for its outdoor laboratory featuring decomposing corpses — Albert is less of a consultant than an extraordinarily patient therapist, with a touch of friend thrown in.
The last part, the friendship, is debatable. Despite his obvious affection for his late wife, the character of Shmuel is an emotionally distant one. But there’s something in the relationship between these two partnerless men — their yearning for connection — that feels, beneath the jokes, very real and very recognizable.
R. At the AMC Hoffman Center 22. Contains strong language, brief nudity and some disturbing images. 105 minutes.