Good grief

Alessandro Nivola on Matthew Broderick, Géza Röhrig and To Dust

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alessandro Nivola on finding Géza Röhrig for To Dust: "Dylan Leiner who is one of the guys who runs Sony Pictures Classics. He knew Géza because they released Son of Saul."
Alessandro Nivola on finding Géza Röhrig for To Dust: "Dylan Leiner who is one of the guys who runs Sony Pictures Classics. He knew Géza because they released Son of Saul." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Alessandro Nivola stars with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience and he is a co-producer with Emily Mortimer, Ron Perlman, Josh Crook, and Scott Lochmus of Shawn Snyder's To Dust with the dynamic excavating duo of Matthew Broderick and Géza Röhrig, two highlights of the Tribeca Film Festival.

If you expect Géza Röhrig to stay in the register of desperate, detached compulsion that he perfected in László Nemes's 2016 Oscar winner Son Of Saul, you're in for a surprise. To Dust strikes a most unusual chord. What does it mean to mourn? Rituals put in place to aid the process of coming to terms with a death may also throw the mourner into a maelstrom of obsession born from grief.

Matthew Broderick and Géza Röhrig are a dynamic excavating duo in To Dust
Matthew Broderick and Géza Röhrig are a dynamic excavating duo in To Dust

This is the soil from which the friendship blossoms between Hasidic cantor Shmuel (Röhrig) who lost his wife, and science teacher at a community college Albert (Matthew Broderick) whom he consults about the process of decay.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The two films in the Tribeca Film Festival that you are involved with have something in common, one could say.

Alessandro Nivola: It was not planned this way. It has been the year of Nivola doing a deep dive into Orthodox Judaism. Because even after both of these I went and shot a film where I played a Mossad agent in Gideon Raff's movie The Red Sea Diving Resort.

AKT: How come? Is it chance? Are you looking for the subject?

AN: It's just chance. Things go these ways. It wasn't that I was setting out to explore my Jewish heritage, which does exist. It's somewhat tenuous but my grandmother was Jewish, German Jewish, who was a refugee during the Second World War. But on my father's side, so it doesn't count. She didn't grow up religious and she didn't live religiously. So I didn't.

AKT: Where in Germany was she from?

Alessandro Nivola on To Dust: "It really becomes a movie about these two men kind of consoling each other in some way."
Alessandro Nivola on To Dust: "It really becomes a movie about these two men kind of consoling each other in some way." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AN (sounding perfectly German): From Frankfurt.

AKT: Am Main?

AN: Am Main! That's how she always said it: Frankfurt am Main. But no, that had nothing to do with it. It was just that they happened to be good stories. To Dust actually came first. It was a script that Emily had read when she was judging a competition for the Sloan Foundation grant with the Tribeca Film Institute.

AKT: I went to their event last year.

AN: They do it every year. And it was just by far the best script in the competition and she showed it to me and I really loved it. It then won that competition and the grant money from the competition was our first little piece of financing for the movie.

AKT: And then you found Géza?

AN: Then we found Géza. Géza we were put in touch with through Dylan Leiner who is one of the guys who runs Sony Pictures Classics. He knew Géza because they released Son of Saul. So when we told him that we were jumping onto this project, he decided that the only person who could play this role was Géza, which is in my opinion true.

Tribeca Film Festival World Première To Dust poster
Tribeca Film Festival World Première To Dust poster Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: How is Géza? I did the opening night post-screening discussion with him for Son Of Saul.

AN: He is doing great. He's one in a million. This was the first film he did after Son Of Saul. I guess, he really is a part-time actor, even though he is a brilliant actor. He has all kinds of jobs. He's a poet. He's going around the world doing poetry symposiums and things like that.

But he lives here in Yonkers or Riverdale up there and he has a part-time job working in a place where they prepare bodies for Orthodox burial. Given the fact that Son Of Saul was about wanting to bury his child. This movie is all about him trying to re-bury his wife.

AKT: But this is a comedy, right? Tribeca announced it as a "buddy comedy".

AN: Well, I think comedy is probably an exaggeration. But it is funny. It's really an exploration of grief. But it definitely has comic elements. Tonally it's really unlike any movie I've ever seen.

AKT: I had a conversation with Bruno Dumont about how tragedy, when it's going too far - it slides into comedy. So when something is too tragic, too awful, comedy is the only way to go. And also the opposite, when comedy goes too far, it becomes really tragic.

AN: I think that's true. There's an absurdism. Especially within the Jewish tradition, the Jewish law dealing with corpses and exhuming bodies after they've been buried, it's just so taboo, forbidden. And it becomes this obsession of this man that her soul is suffering unless her body is completely decomposed.

It gets into that kind of madness brought on by his grief that she's not decomposing quickly enough where she is buried. He starts getting determined to figure out how quickly she is returning to dust.

Albert (Matthew Broderick) with Hasidic cantor Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) have astounding chemistry in their To Dust misadventures.
Albert (Matthew Broderick) with Hasidic cantor Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) have astounding chemistry in their To Dust misadventures.

AKT: Which depends on the type of soil? The chemicals in the earth, the sand?

AN: Yes, it depends on where she is buried.

AKT: So it's going into scientific analysis of the soil?

AN: Yes! And he clandestinely ventures outside the community to find a biology professor at some low rent community college, played by Matthew Broderick. He lives alone and smokes a lot of pot. He's kind of a little bit hapless. His students are bored beyond belief. And so he finds this guy to try and educate him about physical human decomposition.

AKT: What do you do? Add extra worms?

AN: The biology professor is initially a little bit freaked out by this strange Hasidic man who is asking about how bodies decompose. He takes pity on him but also finds that this guy proves to be his most interested student. The two of them end up experimenting with, like, burying pigs and a bunch of things to try and replicate the decomposition process.

It really becomes a movie about these two men kind of consoling each other in some way. Ultimately it's not really a guffawing kind of humour or comedy but it has a sense of the absurd. It's almost a slight B-horror film feeling but really it's an exploration of human response to grief.

To Dust and Disobedience screen at the Tribeca Film Festival
To Dust and Disobedience screen at the Tribeca Film Festival Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And obsession?

AN: And obsession, yeah. Both of them are really touching.

AKT: The description "buddy comedy" might not do it justice.

AN: It's certainly not Lethal Weapon.

To Dust Special Screenings - Monday, April 23, 6:30pm - Regal Battery Park Stadium 05; Tuesday, April 24, 3:30pm - Cinépolis Chelsea 08; Saturday, April 28, 9:00pm - Cinépolis Chelsea 07

Disobedience Spotlight Narrative Tribeca premiere - Tuesday, April 24, 8:00pm - BMCC Tribeca PAC - Expected to attend: Sebastián Lelio, Alessandro Nivola, producer and star Rachel Weisz, composer Matthew Herbert, producer Frida Torresblanco, To Dust producer Emily Mortimer

The 17th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival presented by AT&T runs through April 29.

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