The progression of LGBTQIA+ rights is still a controversial topic in Eastern Europe, with the cultural significance of long-held traditional values and key religious groups opposed to change. Religious protests in Romania have previously disrupted screenings of Robin Campillo's AIDS drama 120 Beats Per Minute, and violent protests outbroke in Tbilisi, Georgia during showings of Levan Akin's And Then We Danced. It's this kind of shocking conflict that Eugen Jebeleanu spotlights in his important workplace drama, Poppy Field.
Following a day in his life, Jebelean highlights the internal struggles of a young Romanian gendarme name Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer) by balancing two opposing key forces in his life. When his long-distance French boyfriend Hadi (Radouan Leflahi) visits, Cristi outwardly recoils as he attempts to show affection while out in public but completely changes when they're behind closed doors. Unfortunately, he gets called into work as a group of nationalist and homophobic protestors storm into a screening of a queer film. When Cristi comes into conflict with an ex-lover amongst the escalating situation, he begins to spiral out of control.
As a closeted gay person working in such a hyper-masculine role, it's clear to see Cristi struggle to hide his true identity in the tense and volatile environment. Even before he's thrown into the hostile situation, Cristi is torn between the expectations of friends and family and his feelings for his secret lover. There's such a stark contrast between the intimate and sweet interactions with his boyfriend in the safety of his flat and the judgements and behaviours of his sister and co-workers in the outside world. External cultural pressures are a key factor that he cannot escape, even as he becomes a bystander amongst the chaos.
Jebeleanu's chamber piece is an intriguing character study, exploring Cristi's psyche as his precarious balancing act and outward persona begins to fall apart. Conrad Mericoffer is fascinating in the role, bringing a real depth and nuance to Cristi. Spiralling from calm and collected to erratic and unpredictable, he lashes out to keep up appearances, but it's this false aggression and internalised homophobia that draws suspicion. Mericoffer excels most in the quiet moments and glaring stares as he attempts to suppress his emotions amongst the claustrophobic action. Radouan Leflah also shines in his all too brief appearance as Cristi's sweet and assured boyfriend.
The impressive long take as the gendarme first enter the screening is the real standout sequence, as the hostility slowly unravels between frustrated cinema-goers and the homophobic bigots. It's an assault on the senses with a well-crafted intensity, thanks in part to the fact that the film attendees are continually asked for their IDs while the protestors are free to cite hateful comments and sing the national anthem. However, despite the atmosphere and impressive central performance, there are a few shortcomings, namely the minimalist script and underwhelming climax.
Featuring a bold performance by Conrad Mericoffer, paired with daring cultural commentary, Poppy Field is a promising directorial debut from Eugen Jebeleanu.
Dir: Eugen Jebeleanu
Scr: Ioana Moraru
DOP: Marius Panduru
Runtime: 81 minutes
Poppy Field will screen as part of the 2021 BFI Flare Festival from March 17-28th 2021