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Friday Flicks: Dust and Red Rocks

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Visual Arts Issue: February 2019
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A new film and an old film festival.

To Dust—Schmuel, a Hasidic cantor from suburban New York, loses his wife to cancer. He’s devastated by the loss, though he isn’t able to properly rend his garment even with help from his mother. He’s haunted by dreams and todustposter 1obsessive thoughts on the progress of his wife’s body’s decay. His mother is soon ready for him to remarry; his two sons fear that he “ate a dybbuk,” but Schmuel can’t shake his morbid visions, or the feeling that some part of his wife’s soul will remain with her body until it’s completely returned to dust.

Unable to get any satisfaction on this matter from his faith, he turns in desperation to science, fecklessly represented here by Albert, a hack biology teacher at a community college. Schmuel randomly consults Albert, then pulls the baffled prof into his grim experiments (be forewarned, the movie shows us postmortem pigs), trying to determine what stage of “dismantling” (Schmuel’s term) his wife’s mortal coil has reached. Gradually the two men bond, and the film, directed by Shawn Snyder from a script he co-wrote with Jason Begue, turns into something like a buddy comedy, albeit of just about the darkest, most deadpan, most macabre sort imaginable.

The cast is outstanding; bit players like Natalie Carter and the always lively Stephanie Kurtzuba make their brief screen time memorable. But it's the two leading men that drive the film. As Schmuel, the Hungarian actor Geza Rohrig, from 2015's Son of Saul, underplays to an almost Keatonesque degree, yet his eyes, peeking out between his bushy beard and the brim of his hat, project some hint of his pain.

And Matthew Broderick gives one his most brilliant performances ever as the blundering, well-meaning sad sack Albert. Initially, it's a little like Broderick is channeling the monotonous economics teacher (Ben Stein) that he was escaping on Ferris Bueller's Day Off. You sense Albert's irritation at the way Schmuel is initially able to dominate him, almost without meaning to, but as the story progresses you can also see how Schmuel's craziness brings this dull man to life.

To Dust, the closing night selection at last year’s inaugural edition of the Peoria Film Festival, is genuinely original and unpredictable. And while it's a meditation, eccentric but warm and often moving, on mortality and grief, the movie is also, once you adjust to its quiet, unforced rhythm, deeply funny. Lots of comedies call themselves subversive, but this one, in its modest way, really qualifies, at least for me. It repeatedly made me laugh out loud, and also feel a little sheepish for doing so.

At Harkins Shea.

Sedona Film Festival—The fest celebrates its 25th anniversary up in Red Rock country this year, starting Saturday, February 23 and continuing through March 3 with showings at the Mary D. Fisher Theatre, the Sedona Performing sedonaff 1Arts Center, and Harkins Sedona 6. A number of big name guests are slated to appear, including Ed Asner, Mariel Hemingway and Mackenzie Phillips, as well as cool character players like Lin Shaye, who appears in support of her star turn in the Sedona-shot drama Room for Rent.

The schedule is packed with features and shorts, dramas, comedies and documentaries. The latter category includes several, this year, about famous actors: Tommy Avallone's The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man; Alexa Foreman's Scandal: The Trial of Mary Astor; and Kurt Jacobsen and Warren Leming's Ed Asner: On Stage and Off. From the dramatic features, maybe the most tantalizing is The Tobacconist, starring the late lamented Bruno Ganz as Sigmund Freud.

Ticket packs start at $130; for details go to sedonafilmfestival.com or call 928-282-1177.