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How Matthew Broderick's movie "To Dust" explores grief with laughter

All About the 360 / Julie Candelaria

Both tears and comedy flow in this tale of a widower who can't stop worrying about his wife's body

Funny, tragic, and profound, the new movie "To Dust," starring Matthew Broderick and Geza Rohrig, is likely to resonate with anyone who has mourned a loss — especially those who've struggled to stick with society's timeline for grieving.

Oh, and if your grief ever made you wonder about taboo subjects like what was happening to your loved one's body after death — this movie is for you.

Rohrig plays Shmuel, a Hasidic Jewish cantor whose wife dies of cancer as the movie opens. After she's buried, he becomes obsessed with needing to know how her body is decaying. Understanding this, he believes, will help ease his mind that she's at rest.

His search leads him to Albert (Broderick), a community college biology teacher, who is reluctantly drawn in to Shmuel's quest for information. The story that ensues is part wacky buddy comedy and part real exploration of grief.

"To Dust" is the first feature film directed by Shawn Snyder, who also co-wrote the script (with Jason Begue) as he worked through his own grief for his mother.

Snyder tells Legacy that he, too, had thoughts like Shmuel's after his mother's death a decade ago, though he didn't grow as obsessed as the character he wrote. "So, okay, it's seven days," Snyder recalls thinking. "We've just finished shiva. This is where I'm at emotionally. What does my mom's body look like?"

Most People Have Morbid Curiosity

It was a thought process that continued as Snyder went through the rituals of grieving, like visiting his mother's grave. "I've never really felt comfort at my mom's grave," he says. "I've only ever been aware of the biological entity that was once my mom." And surely, he realized, there were others who felt the same way — but it's not the sort of thing we think we're supposed to talk about.

"If you admit to [wondering about death and decay]," Snyder continues, "especially from the depths of grief, everybody just tends to say, 'No, you don't need to think about that now.' You're just discouraged from those thoughts, and so you feel very alone in them, and you feel very strange, and you repress them, as I repressed them. And when you repress things, they just come back with a vengeance."

In "To Dust," Shmuel is similarly discouraged from looking for the answers that he thinks will help him through his grief. Instead, he's expected to follow the rigid timeline for grieving laid out by his faith. Judaism provides a template for grief that mourners are encouraged and expected to follow, leading them through milestones and into peaceful acceptance after a very specific period of time. But Shmuel has trouble sticking with the timeline.

How We're 'Supposed' to Grieve

Shmuel performs a key Jewish death ritual right after his wife dies: He tears his coat, symbolizing his deep grief. He continues to wear the torn coat, which is also prescribed by the laws of his religion. But those same religious laws say that there comes a time when the griever should mend their clothing. That's an outward symbol that they're moving through their grief. But Shmuel doesn't do it, despite his loved ones gently reminding him that it's time to fix his coat.

Snyder explains how important this small bit of symbolism is to grief in the Jewish tradition: "It's like if you're unshaven, or unkempt, you're allowed this external expression of grief, and the ripped coat. But at some point, folks in your community are going to start saying, and sort of thereby giving you permission, 'Hey, you know, maybe clean up the beard, or cut your hair, or take care of yourself.' And that's almost supposed to be like a scripted interaction, like a permission to do that."

Instead, we watch Shmuel ignore the expectations of him, continuing to walk around in his ripped coat and spending all his time worrying about the things he's not supposed to let himself think about. All the people around him can see is how he's failing to move through his grief in the expected way. But Shmuel's quest for knowledge about his wife's decaying body ultimately leads him to a peace that grieving rituals couldn't give him.

We may not all have had the same obsessive thoughts of decay that Shmuel has, but almost any griever can talk about the ways they "failed" at grieving like they were expected to. Maybe you didn't proceed through the stages of grief in anything like a tidy way, or you laughed at your loved one's funeral, or you started dating too soon after your spouse died, or you couldn't ever bring yourself to visit the grave… and someone probably judged you for it, but you were just navigating grief in your own way. Every griever is different, but Shmuel is also every griever as he does whatever it takes to heal himself.

A Movie About Moving Forward

There's a small but charming subplot in "To Dust" revolving around Shmuel's young sons, who were taunted by a classmate and now worry that their father has eaten their mother's dybbuk — her ghost. As they learn more about the folkloric creature and try to exorcise their father in his sleep, their story is funny and cute, but it's also totally relatable. Of course it's upsetting to children when a parent dies and the other is left to grieve, and of course they're going to do what they can to try to understand and make it better. 

The idea that Shmuel can't let go of his grief for his wife because her ghost is inhabiting his body could be the setup for a horror movie. It doesn't play out that way, though: if Shmuel is carrying anything inside him, it's more like his memories of a lifetime together and an ache over the fact that he won't make more memories like them. 

Snyder finds a beautiful metaphor in the folklore of the dybbuk: "I sort of boil it down to this: a dybbuk could possibly be benevolent, and a host is potentially willing. So do you need to purge your grief, or do you need to let it live inside you? If the dybbuk is a metaphor for grief, or if it's, more explicitly, the person who's been lost, do you heal when you exorcise them or do you actually heal when they are allowed to healthily, and properly, and organically embed inside you? And then, you become that person's continued expression in the world.… It's the stuff of horrific folklore, and yet there's something really beautiful and profound."

In the end, Shmuel, with Albert's help, finds at least some of the information he's seeking, and it's revelatory to him. His grief certainly isn't over, but he's got an answer to his nagging question that gives him at least some peace. Anyone who has grieved knows that a little peace is a step in the right direction.

"To Dust" might not be right for everyone who's grieving — there are some potentially disturbing scenes of decay, most notably a time-lapse film of a small pig in the days following its death. There are also brief glimpses of other dead bodies. If you don't feel ready to see something like that, you might want to hold off before watching "To Dust." 

But if you're intrigued and want to see this irreverently funny and meaningful story of love and grief, you may be able to find "To Dust" in theaters — it's in limited release now. A streaming digital release is expected this spring.