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Now Open in New York, “To Dust” Is the Boulder Jewish Film Festival’s Most Provocative Title

Hands-down the oddest plotline in this year’s film festival line-up is that of “To Dust,” which stars Matthew Broderick as a community college science professor enlisted to help a Hasidic widower (Géza Röhrig) determine how long it will take his wife’s corpse to rot.

Voted audience favorite at the Tribeca Film Festival last April, the darkly funny yet profound film about grief and the mysteries of the human heart opens this week in New York, and has been getting excellent reviews despite its improbable premise – or perhaps because of it.

Hollywood Reporter: “A dryly funny debut that pairs science and religious belief in a way that must surely be unique in the annals of cinema….The strange and specific film doesn’t reach for the kind of outrageousness that might make it an art house comedy hit, but instead plays its quirks nearly straight, refusing to mock its protagonist for beliefs few viewers will share.”

The story behind the film is also fascinatingly personal. Actor Géza Röhrig, who starred in the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul” (BJFF 2015) as a concentration camp prisoner who becomes obsessed with properly burying the body of a boy who may be his son, returns as an observant Jew who has just buried his wife.

In real life, Röhrig actually prepares bodies for burial, and director and co-writer Shawn Snyder, who’s also Jewish, sees the film as part of his grieving process for his mother.

For more than two decades, Röhrig served as a member of a chevra kadisha, literally “holy society,” taking care of the ritual washing and dressing of the dead before burial.

Röhrig, who said that he could relate to the character of Shmuel because, sooner or later, everyone goes through this process, cited the aninut period between death and burial as especially holy, explaining that, for Shmuel, it spills over beyond twenty-four or forty-eight hours.

Röhrig told the Jewish Week that, “I don’t think that death is the opposite of life. I believe that life and death are interrelated parts, a continuous existence, an eternal rhythm. For me, doing a tahara [ritual preparation] is uplifting, like praying.”

Snyder shared his own story about what inspired the making of this film with Jewicy.com. Nine years ago, he lost his mother, and he comes from a Reform background where there are specific mourning rituals in place that he described as “psychologically profound.” He still found his own grief “spilling outside the bounds of that requirement” and, nine years later, he still mourns. He had difficulty with the fact that he never felt comfort at her grave, and compared the Jewish timeline for grief with wondering what his mother’s body looks like after seven days, or after a month. He notes that he is very squeamish, and that this film, which involves some grisly imagery, is the least likely product he could have imagined.

Columbia University Professor Annette Insdorf, author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,” told The Jewish Week:

‘“To Dust’ is an original and provocative black comedy, a first feature that treats death and mourning with a surprisingly light touch. Géza Röhrig is fascinating to watch. His character Shmuel’s obsession with burying his wife properly — releasing her soul — is reminiscent of ‘Son of Saul.’ There, Röhrig’s character is irrationally obsessed with burying a boy — according to Jewish ritual — in Auschwitz. Both protagonists hover in the threshold between life and death.”

The Boulder Jewish Film Festival screenings of “To Dust” are sponsored by Platinum Sponsors Grace and Gordon Gamm, and Community Partner Chevra Kadisha.

A third screening has just been added on Monday, March 11 at 11:00 am.

Please note, Shawn Snyder will Skype after the 4:00 pm Thursday, March 14 screening only.

For tickets to the Boulder Jewish Film Festival, March 7-17, CLICK HERE

To listen to an interview with the director and stars, Click here

About Kathryn Bernheimer

Director of Menorah: Arts, Culture and Education at the Boulder JCC. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time."

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