Smaller and Smaller Circles is based on the award-winning novel of the same name by F.H. Batacan. It uncovers a string of violent deaths set in the slums of Payatas, Philippines. It’s directed by Raya Martin, and was written by Raymond Lee and Ria Limjap.
Several bodies of young boys have been found in the trash dumps. Their faces have been surgically removed, their heart and organs have been carved out, and their genitals have been mutilated. The bureau investigating the case recruits Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) and his assistant Father Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero), two Jesuit priests who teach at the local boarding school but also dabble in forensic science.
The horrific nature of the crimes greatly disturbs Father Gus and Jerome. It becomes harder for them to relax outside the office and they have trouble sleeping. Religion plays a big part in the story and the role of God is always called into question; What kind of sadistic God would allow such cruelty to such innocent boys? Would God show mercy to the killer, or will they face eternal damnation for their sins?
The community is an ideal environment for a killer to operate. Most of the citizens are poor and unemployed. The church sponsors weekly food programs for the poor, but most are forced to find their meals in the trash dumps. The killer targets his young victims walking alone at night through the slums. There’s a massive gap between the grieving families and the politicians representing them. While children are being butchered in the streets, the wealthy elite are attending operas and squabbling on live television.
As is the case across the world, the institutions that the people put so much faith in fall short and do more harm than good. The regional cardinal is accused of transferring known sexually abusive priests from one diocese to another, but of course denies any pedophilic presence in the Catholic church. The very fact that the Church investigates its own crimes allows them to sweep the problems under the rug.
The police are of no use either. They ignore most of Father Gus’ findings, stating that there has never been a serial killer in the Philippines. But with mounting pressure from the public, they’re desperate to make an arrest, even if their suspect has no connection to the crimes. Father Gus seems to be the only competent person on the case, but his progress is constantly stunted by indifference and bureaucratic red tape. When funding for his forensic laboratory is drastically cut, he wonders if he’ll ever be able to solve the case.
Throughout the film, we hear the inner monologue of the killer, his identity remaining obscured until near the end. He talks about his childhood traumas, and how disconnected he feels to the world around him. He knows what he’s doing is wrong, but he feels like he can’t stop either. You almost feel sympathy for him. But he is also incredibly cocky, and leaves behind clues to mock the investigators. For decades, psychologists have been fascinated with the minds of serial killers. Although fictionalized, the killer’s thoughts are very similar to what we’ve heard from interviews with some of America’s most notorious murderers.
I must admit, I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on how faithful the film is to its source material. Nor do I know a lot about Filipino culture or history. I’ve only recently been reading about the Philippines from news stories on their current president Rodrigo Duterte and the thousands of civilians that have been killed from his war on drugs. The events of Smaller and Smaller Circles take place sometime between the late 90s and early 2000s, so my understanding of the current political climate was of no use. Though it appears that corruption has always been considered business as usual.
After doing some research, I realized how unaware I was to the extent the Philippines have been warped by years of Spanish and American Colonialism. It’s evident in the dialogue Smaller and Smaller Circles; characters switch back and forth between Filipino and English, and drop the occasional Spanish word. At some point there’s even an exchange in French between Father Gus and Joanna Bonifacio, a reporter who helps out with the investigation. It’s all very impressive, but it’s recommended that anyone outside of the Philippines watches this film with subtitles.
“Smaller and Smaller Circles has the potential of making waves beyond its borders.”
There aren’t any major horror elements to the film itself, however there’s a sense of dread that builds when a victim encounters their unseen attacker. The corpses of the young boys are very graphic and at times, hard to look at, so kudos to the effects department for their attention to detail.
Smaller and Smaller Circles has the potential of making waves beyond its borders. We rarely hear anything about Filipino cinema, but this film deserves an international audience. It has the all the makings of a classic murder mystery set in unfamiliar territory. Fans of crime thrillers will be intrigued by the film’s dark setting, but will discover an appreciation of Filipino culture along the way.
Smaller and Smaller Circles will be available on digital platforms on March 19th.