The film opens in 1943 as German soldiers invade seven-year-old Roman’s Ukrainian village, murdering everyone. With his mother and baby brother at his side, the terrified Roman flees into the woods, soldiers in pursuit. When they reach a river, Roman is told to hide, the baby is placed in the river to float away while the mother meets her fate.
Cut to 1987. Roman has built a life as a farmer with wife Kalyna (Vera Graziadei) and eight-year-old son Mykola (Daniel Mazepa). Tragedy reenters his life when Kalyna is killed in a farm accident, leaving him the grief-stricken single father with a business to run.
“Go with God,” his local priest tells him. “God is always with you.”
“Where was God two weeks ago?” he asks.
As old memories flood his head, Roman falls apart. He hits the bottle, and has visions of German soldiers shouting “Find the boy.” He hears gunshots in the distance and pictures his mother in the woods. As his behavior escalates, becoming more and more erratic, Mykola is place in the care of his Aunt Natalia, played by Ali Liebert. With the aid of his family and church, Roman’s fog of grief slowly lifts and he is able to find a new way to live his life. “They will beat us and try to destroy us,” Roman remembers his long-lost Uncle Stefan (Michael Sech) telling him. “Some of us will die but we will rebuild our lives.”
“They Who Surround Us” is a low-key examination of the effects of intergenerational trauma. But just as it examines the life altering effects great personal tragedy it also underscores the healing power of community. Roman discovers he is not an island, that the very people he tried to push away would become his salvation. It’s an uplifting message, perhaps underplayed, that caps off a movie that slowly and carefully details Roman’s pain.
“They Who Surround Us” is a deliberate film, in its slow pace and considered performances that may move too slowly for some viewers, but offers subtle rewards to those who take the ride.