Cristi’s out of town visitor Hadi is a German-Turkish flight attendant so handsome that he can’t wait to get him to his apartment. The elevator will do.
But when his sister drops by, she chides her brother for not taking Hadi out, showing him the Romanian sights. She echoes Hadi’s own hopes that they’d “take a drive” to “the mountains.” Nothing doing.
Cristi hasn’t even taken time off work. On the job, in this Eastern Orthodox, conservative and homophobic country, no one can know about his private life. Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer) is a cop and any public displays of his sexuality could be a career killer, at the very least.
“Poppy Field” is a Romanian drama about the state of gay life in that still-backward country, decades after the end of its totalitarian dictatorship. Eugen Jebeleanu’s brief, intimate film sees Cristi challenged at home — by Hadi (Radouan Leflahi), who frets over his closeted status, and by sister Catalina (Cendana Trifan), who berates him for not treating his lover with more respect, even if she’s sure this is just serial-dater Cristi’s “gay phase.” On the job, Cristi keeps as much to himself as his fellow Jandarmeria (police) allow. He talks of women he’s dated in the past tense, and stays silent when he’s jokingly asked if he “beats them,” perhaps a logical Romanian reason for relationships that never seem to last.
But things come to a head when he and his team are sent to break up a disturbance at the state cinema. A group of noisy, icon-wielding Orthodox protesters have disrupted a screening of a lesbian romance. In the film’s long middle act, Cristi must stand passively by as furious fanatics hurl slurs at the audience, get in the paying patrons’ and cops’ faces in a situation that isn’t helped by police presence.
Because when the cops start asking for IDs, it’s the folks who bought tickets to the movie that they seem to want to interrogate. And a guy in that audience may be discrete, but when nobody else is watching, he turns insistent.
“You’re really gonna pretend you don’t know me (in Romanian, with English subtitles)?”
Jebeleanu keeps his ambitions modest in his debut feature film. This is one man’s often-ignoble reaction to having to deny himself to half the people he knows — his colleagues. Cristi lashes out and “overcompensates,” and that only makes matters worse.
The script (by Ioana Moraru) is more concerned with introducing Cristi’s dilemma and putting him through this harrowing test than in resolving his situation — publicly or psychologically.
Mericoffer keeps this interior journey on simmer for most of the film, only exploding in his “protests too much” reaction to being confronted with some version of his true self. It’s a compact, tightly-wound performance, which suits the film beautifully.
By Western standards, “Poppy Field” may feel as dated as one protestor’s hurled insult — “Sexo-MARXIST!” But in showing Romania’s version of what the West went through decades ago in terms of simple tolerance, there’s an implied “Let’s not go back there” message to increasingly reactionary Europe and America’s reddest states that feels fraught, if not downright wearying. Maybe “It gets better,” but not without making hard, brave choices.