Impeccable form and deep-seated social commentary make up for the plot trappings of Raya Martin's adaptation of the Philippines' "first crime novel."
A jarring insight commonly seen in the renaissance of the true crime genre -- as represented by the deep dives taken in Serial, Making a Murderer and The Keepers -- is that it adds another layer to how we look at crime and the so-called monsters that commit them.
No longer is the focus solely on the perpetrator (the debate on nature vs. nurture was a big debacle in the 1970s), the spotlight has now widened its spread to cover the systems that breed such and perpetuate their existence, whether it may be through deeply ingrained oppression, the failure of the penal system, or the level of corruption in our institutions. It is in the intersections of these different circles where a film like Smaller and Smaller Circles plants itself.
There’s a bit of expectation-setting one must do before going into Smaller and Smaller Circles. Less of a cat-and-mouse thriller and more of a crime drama on the intertwines of corruption within the institutional monoliths that might as well define the Philippines, the circles in the title pertain more to the confining cyclicality these said institutions propagate and less the chest-tightening excitement of closing in on a serial killer. The film creates discussion more on the how and why systemized abuse can develop murderers like the film’s antagonist, who is very much a product of the system as well as of the complicity (sins of omission?) that come along with it.
Based on the 2002 novel by F.H. Batacan, the source material is highly regarded as the Philippines’ first crime novel, which both a reduction and an exaggeration in my opinion, not a diss but a discussion for another day. Smaller and Smaller Circles follows two Jesuits priests brought in as consultants after a slew of murders — young boys who are left eviscerated and their faces peeled off — warrant fears that a serial killer may be on the loose.
Set in 1997, this is a procedural that employs more classical sleuthing and criminal profiling rather than the modern-day computer and forensic work we often see in our post-CSI world. Above this, the story uses an ingenious device in its narrative arsenal by exposing viewers to the thoughts of the killer right from the start (literally at the opening scene). This adds nuance, engrossing viewers more, intriguing us with a layer of “why?” on top of the initial “who?”
Cinematography and production design draw us into this world as confining as the titular circles. There is beauty in the film’s depiction of an ugly and oppressive world. Gritty, grimy, the smell of sweat and trash in the air; palpability to the point that you can smell it.
Director Raya Martin shows his knack in creating an ominous, silently hostile world, as seen before in 2013’s How to Disappear Completely, through the use of almost-permanent chiaroscuro in his images, meticulous production design, and scoring that employs the Loboc’s Children’s Choir, in an ironic move to create a mood that is both ethereal and menacing. Emphasizing sound and image gives the crime drama the hovering feeling of dread, making the film gripping on a more emotional and psychological level.
It is this intensity of craftsmanship that the film revels in. This makes it easily a notch higher than the novel it was based on, which is at times criticized for being too prosaic.
A showcase of skill on the technical side, content-wise however, there’s much to be desired in the film’s straightforward storytelling. Smaller and Smaller Circles’ first act takes quite some time before it finds its footing. The first 20 minutes or so suffer from flat pacing as plot development can feel both too fast and too weightless. Instead of letting tensions build — engaging the audience to connect the dots, making the act of discovery more nerve-wracking — the film often cuts the tension by having characters dole out answers too early, too nonchalantly, for anyone to feel the revelations’ gravity.
Quite a missed opportunity, in my opinion, as Smaller and Smaller Circles is the kind of film that doesn’t hide the killer away from us. We see what he does, we hear his partial thoughts on why he does it. The knowledge unknown to the protagonists on-screen could evoke better introspection and empathy from the audience. The film would have benefited, created a more engrossing plot, from the added perspective already in its employ.
The same rush to carry the plot forward does not help, either, in building the film’s suspense. Oftentimes, serial killer films reveal time frames to add duress unto protagonists to find the killer — “Aha, this is when he will strike again!” The film does this as well, but the stresses aren’t as pronounced. It tries to double up its efforts on other fronts by introducing subplots, but they are never fully fleshed out and merely serve as glimpses of the world beyond the central narrative. Dead ends, frustrations, etc. all feel more fleeting rather than pressing.
(It doesn’t help either that there’s a bit of a celebrity cameo overload in Smaller, at times snapping the suspension of disbelief with the presence of more than familiar faces.)
Given that Smaller and Smaller Circles is mostly a crime drama, the elements already in its employ warrant the intent of providing the thrills of a chase, creating the back-and-forth thrill serial killer films are known for. Unfortunately, these elements aren’t fully utilized, leaving them dormant, full of latent potential. the film though, given these misgivings, is still a gripping drama from where it is, and that is because of the performances and interplaying of themes they stem from.
By the time the killer becomes apparent, the film gets carried by performances that highlight the purgatory born from the intertwining rot of our country’s institutions. The juxtaposition of church and state creates a statement on the little difference these monoliths have in their complicity, incompetence, and their tendency to cut corners to save face.
The oppression the two enact create different victims to varying degrees, as seen in the characters of Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino), Father Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero), and the film’s killer (a stand-out..secret!). We feel the steadfast righteous crusader in Buencamino, the empathic and not-quite-cut-out-yet greenhorn in Lucero, and the desperation and damage in the killer.
The final scenes of the killer, in fact, are quite commendable as neither is he meant to be hated nor is he lionized. He is a pitiful creature that ties back to the same machine Father Saenz unflinchingly, after all these years, rages against. There is poeticism in these final moments that brings added dimension to the novel’s original last chapters, a melancholic callback to the theme of everyone, we included, being victims of the systems, the constricting circles, in place.
Smaller and Smaller Circles' achievements in other areas could have better served the movie if it didn't suffer from the trappings of flat pacing and lack of adequate build up. Amidst its imperfections, though, Smaller and Smaller Circles is a valiant effort in pushing the boundaries of Philippine genre filmmaking. It exhibits impeccable taste in its use of form — it is indeed a beautiful film. It also serves as pressing commentary on the confining circles created by institutional corruption.
(Cross-published in Film Police Reviews.)