The Polish thriller “Operation Hyacinth” (“Hiacynt”) is based on an infamous piece of Communist history, Poland’s systemic police harassment, arrest, documentation and blackmail of the country’s homosexual population in the mid-1980s.
If it was meant to create a database of Every Gay in Poland, it was a Polish joke. Some 11,000 names are all they came up with. But as a monstrous, violent violation of civil rights, it’s hard not to wonder if Nazi sympathizers were never rooted out of the “militia” — Poland’s national police.
The movie director Piotr Domalewski (“Silent Night”) and first-feature screenwriter Marcin Ciaston conjured out of that is an undercover cop chases a conspiracy tale, a somewhat “inevitable” story that invites application of that reviewing cliche, “solid.”
As in, the execution, acting and chilling Soviet Bloc production design are more impressive than any surprise “Hyacinth” struggles to come up with.
It’s just reminiscent enough of William Friedkin’s controversial undercover-in-the-gay-community 1980 film “Cruising” for the comparison to pop to mind in anybody watching “Hyacinth.”
Militia sergeants Robert (Tomasz Zietek) and Nogas (Jakub Wieczorek) are a crack team, with younger Robert the brains and Nogas the bulk. Robert, son of a government security minister (Marek Kalita), is nobody’s idea of a tough guy. But thanks to his connections, they’re the gruff boss’s (Miroslaw Zbrojewicz) favorites.
That’s how they’re handed a murder case, a “well to do” victim found in a Warsaw park close to “The Mushroom,” the men’s room, a favorite cruising ground for the city’s gay men.
To “make this go away, quickly (in Polish with subtitles, or dubbed into English), they’ll need the help of the “Operation Hiacynt” team, which has files, a record of gay haunts and a squad to help them round up suspects to blackmail or torture for “information.”
As they wade into this world, Robert is put off by the systemic injustice, and by his partner’s casual cruelty, brutality that leads to one arrested informant’s suicide.
When Robert goes his own way with the investigation, undercover, developing college lad Arek (Hubert Milkowski) as a source, other “suicides” come to light, connections are made and the higher ups announce that “The case is closed.”
As his Dad passes on warnings and his partner moves on, Robert digs into the case with a little help from his file clerk fiance (Adrianna Chlebicka) and we’re left to wonder how far Robert will go to maintain his cover, what makes this case so important to him and where this tangled web will lead him and us.
We’re “meant” to wonder that, anyway. That’s what I’m talking about when I say “inevitable.”
Zietek, seen in the Polish drama “Corpus Christi,” gives Robert a subtle intensity that masks some of what the character sees as his reasons for doggedly pursuing this case. He’s a lone seeker of justice and protector of a vulnerable population. But even this “protected” insider can’t see a payoff in taking on a corrupt and murderously homophobic system.
The script doesn’t adequately develop any of the other characters, although much-credited TV actress Chlebicka nicely suggests a woman whose seemingly narrow horizons and limited ambitions aren’t her whole story.
Kalita’s father figure lets a little sensitivity show, but not much. This is a commissar who knows what’s what and just what he’ll have to do if his son crosses one line too many.
“Operation Hyacinth” isn’t particularly progressive or surprising by Hollywood standards. But the mere fact newly nationalist Poland is opening this historical homophobic can of worms and putting it on Netflix counts for something. They probably never showed “Cruising” on that side of the Iron Curtain.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, sex, nudity
Cast: Tomasz Zietek, Hubert Milkowski, Marek Kalita, Adrianna Chlebicka and Jakub Wieczorek.
Credits: Directed by Piotr Domalewski, scripted by Marcin Ciaston. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:46