Operation Hyacinth (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A grim but compelling Polish police noir drama

Polish film “Operation Hyacinth”, which was released on Netflix in last month, looks into its moody period background via a typical noir tale of obsession, confusion, and corruption. As steadily following a supposedly clean-cut young hero who becomes quite obsessed with solving one mysterious criminal case, the movie observes not only his growing personal conflict but also the oppressive system willing to crush the weak without any hesitation, and we are more chilled as the hero desperately struggles inside the system where he must pay the price in one way or another in the end.

The title of the movie comes from a secret mass operation of the Polish communist police during 1985-1987. The purpose of this operation was to create the national database of all the homosexuals and their associates in Poland, and one early scene in the film gives us a brief glimpse of how this operation was done day by day during that time. Because homosexuality was not only a taboo but also a crime, cops could arrest anyone suspected of a homosexual, and those arrested homosexuals were often mistreated by cops, while also facing the grim possibility of getting their lives and careers ruined forever.

Like many other detectives around him, Robert Mrozowski (Tomasz Ziętek) does not have much sympathy or compassion toward those arrested homosexuals, and this young detective is not so pleased when he and his older partner happen to be assigned to the case of the brutal murder of some rich gay dude shortly after closing their latest case. Although this case does not seem to help his promising career that much, Robert has no choice because his direct boss is adamant about him handling the case, and so is his father, who happens to be a very influential high-ranking official in the system.

As investigating the case more along with his partner, Robert begins to delve into a small community of gay people in the city. At first, they spy on a certain public place where those gay people often seek their clandestine pleasure at night, and then Robert decides to get closer for getting anyone who can function as an informer for him. Fortunately, he happens to come across a college lad named Arek (Hubert Milkowski), and it does not take much time for him to gain Arek’s trust after they run away together from another usual police raid.

Meanwhile, the case is suddenly closed shortly after Robert and his partner arrest a possible suspect, and Robert cannot help but wonder more about many unexplained aspects of the case. Although the case may be a part of some bigger case, it seems that his direct boss as well as his father is willing to look away, and Robert certainly feels more pressured as going deeper in the case even though he is officially off the case.

As he continues his investigation in private, Robert also gets to know Arek and other gay people more. At one point, he is invited a little private party of theirs, and, though he is rather hesitant a bit at first, but he soon finds himself swept by the (no pun intended) gay mood surrounding them, and then he feels quite conflicted while coming to care about Arek more than before. It is apparent that Arek is attracted to Robert, but Robert does not know what to do about this situation as gradually getting attracted to Arek, and it does not take much time for his fiancée, who also works in the police, to notice Robert’s growing inner conflict.

Now this will probably remind you of what Al Pacino’s character went through in William Friedkin’s notorious queer thriller film “Cruising” (1980), but, while it pays considerable attention to Robert’s sexual confusion, the movie also has other fish to fry. Constantly shrouded in stark gray ambience with lots of darkness here and there, the movie has us feel more of the oppressive social mood surrounding our hero and many other characters in the film, and the presence of the evil hidden inside the system feels more palpable to us as our hero goes further into his lonely investigation. Although he becomes more determined to get to the bottom of the case, there are people not so pleased with him snooping around here and there, and, of course, they do have the power to silence him once for all if necessary.

The screenplay by Marcin Ciaston eventually culminates to an intense climatic scene where its hero must make a big choice to affect not only himself but also several other characters around him, and director Piotr Domalewski keeps holding our attention as usual. I think the movie ends rather abruptly in the very last shot, but what is told to us next resonates a lot with what we have observed via its hero, and we are chilled as reminded of how oppressive system usually feeds on the weak for maintaining its status quo by any means necessary.

Tomasz Ziętek, who previously appeared in Jan Komasa’s Oscar-nominated film “Corpus Christi” (2019), gives a solid lead performance as the center of the story, and several other main cast members of the movie bring some extra shades to the film. While Hubert Milkowski complements Ziętek well during their several crucial scenes, Marek Kalita is unnervingly unflappable as Robert’s stern father, and Adrianna Chlebicka brings some warmth to the story as Robert’s fiancée.

On the whole, “Operation Hyacinth” is a grim but compelling genre piece to be appreciated for mood, storytelling, and performance, and it is certainly one of the better films from Netflix during this year. Yes, this is basically a standard stuff for seasoned mystery fans like me, but it did its jobs as well as intended while vividly illuminating the dark sides of the Polish society in the 1980s, and I think it will linger on my mind for a long time.

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