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February 15, 2019 10:38 am

Why Matthew Broderick Wanted to Star in a Buddy Film About Jewish Mourning

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

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Geza Rohrig, Matthew Broderick, Alessandro Nivola, Emily Mortimer and Shawn Snyder. Photo: Koon Nguy for the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.

Matthew Broderick’s comedic talent on screen is unquestionable. But starring in a film as a biology professor helping a Hasidic cantor deal with his wife’s death might have been a questionable choice — especially with a shoestring budget and a debut director. But Broderick made the movie anyway, which is called “To Dust.

Broderick and Geza Rohrig (who plays the cantor) have an uncanny chemistry in the film. Their characters, Albert and Shmuel, joke with each other, curse at each other, and give each other strength. Shmuel wants to know what will happen to his wife’s decomposed corpse, so he enlists the help of Albert in burying a pig and then digging it up to see to what happens to it.

“I had never read anything like it,” Broderick told the crowd at an event at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. “I met [director] Shawn [Snyder] and liked him. … I wanted to work with Geza. I liked the script. It was very good-hearted, aside from being moving and maybe funny. It shot in Staten Island, so I thought, ‘That’s not that far.’ Staten Island is very far in a lot of ways. I didn’t know that when we started making it.”

Rohrig had the lead role in the Hungarian movie “Son of Saul,” which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015. In that movie, Rohrig’s character is a prisoner in Auschwitz, who is hell-bent on ensuring a proper burial for a Jewish child. Here, he can’t return to his normal self and take care of his two sons properly after his wife’s death.

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The film is bizarre and beautiful, and it hinges on the credibility of its two stars. At a second event on the film at the JCC Manhattan, Rohrig said that it was a joy to work with Broderick.

“Matthew is not like a celebrity for me,” Rohrig told me. “I find him extremely humble. He’s a fantastically disciplined actor. He’s a natural. I was never trained to become an actor, so I tried to figure out his secrets. I don’t know how he does it. He believes his senses. A lot of actors over-prepare and rehearse in front of a mirror and have a shtick and keep doing the same shtick. I found that when I’m in front of the cameras with Matthew and I do something different, he’s doing something different too. He is able to react.”

Snyder, who also co-wrote the film with Jason Begue, said the idea for the film came when his mother died about 10 years ago. He described himself as a Reform Jew with great respect for the laws and profundity of mourning.

Actress and producer Emily Mortimer read the script when she was a judge for the Tribeca Film Institute Sloan Screenwriting Competition, and after loving it, she and her husband Alessandro Nivola decided to help raise money for and produce the film, with a budget of approximately one million dollars.

Snyder said that he never expected to have such a cast.

“It was utterly surreal,” Snyder told me. “I was pinching myself then, and [am] pinching myself now. It’s such an oddly personal film. It’s sort of my own therapy on a page. That the film got made at all seems miraculous to me. That we got Matthew Broderick was ultra- miraculous, as well as Geza. They are an odd couple, and it was a privilege to see the chemistry between them.”

He admitted that comedy and corpses are not a natural fit, but he took it as a challenge. His research included Hasidic traditions, as well as science.

He told the crowd that the grieving process doesn’t only last a year.

“Grief isn’t something I want to purge,” Snyder said. “It’s something I’ve taken inside me that I want to live with and that I appreciate and am grateful for. … It keeps my mom present.”

Synder also said that his film is meant to show respect for the ultra-Orthodox community.

“It’s not the story of a man who wants to leave,” Snyder said. “It’s the story of a man who wants to return.”

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