Eugen Jebeleanu refuses to pull his punches in his acclaimed and award-winning first feature Poppy Field (Câmp de Maci). What begins as a romance becomes an intensely claustrophobic character study of a closeted policeman in Romania.
When Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer) brings his long-distance boyfriend, Hadi (Radouan Leflahi), to his apartment, it’s clear how uncomfortable Cristi is to be seen in public with him. However once in private their passion is intense. So begins a Weekend-esque affair in the confines of Cristi’s small home. But Cristi’s jitters are never far from the surface. When Hadi suggests they get out of town for the weekend, Cristi is full of excuses. When his sister arrives, he snaps in anger.
That night, while on duty, he is called to a cinema where a group of religious extremists are protesting a gay film (inspired by real life events in Bucharest). As the protest heats up, Cristi’s position is tested. Can he keep hiding while patrolling the line between his queer self, and his closeted career?
Jebeleanu and scriptwriter Ioana Moraru keep Cristi’s thoughts inscrutable as the camera rarely leaves his seemingly placid face (kudos to cinematographer Marius Panduru). Incredibly long takes with handheld cameras keep the audience in the room, mixed in the maelstrom of the protest and a constant onlooker to Cristi’s dilemma. It’s an uncomfortable viewing experience, visceral in its impact akin to verité documentary filmmaking. We have no chance to look away, to breathe, or to escape. Forcing the viewer to be complicit in a real-time event begs us to ask, what would we do?
Mericoffer imbues Cristi with stoicism, without him becoming unlikable or boring. His angst and anger are as palpable as they are misdirected. When one of the cinema patron’s recognizes and confronts him, their encounter is fueled by fear and outrage, threatening to tear Cristi’s world to shreds. Cristi’s police co-workers exhibit a mix of casual homophobia and sexism that Cristi engages in to fit in. For all their disgusting banter though, Cristi’s friendship with Mircea (Alexandru Potocean) feels genuine and is a sweet relief in a film filled with rage.
Challenging, and at times frustrating, Poppy Field refuses to offer easy answers or to deliver judgements. It’s an impressive technical achievement, and while hardly an easy watch, is nonetheless a rewarding one. It’s also a stark reminder that even in countries with some legal protections for its LGBTQ+ population, the malignant forces of homophobia and resulting shame, have a deep impact on its citizens.
By Chad Armstrong
Poppy Field (Câmp de Maci) gets its Australian premiere at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, running February 17th – March 3rd 2022. Click here for session times and tickets.
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