‘Smaller and Smaller Circles’ Foregoes the Pleasures of the Detective Story
The movie adaptation of FH Batacan’s novel has bigger things on its mind
Smaller and Smaller Circles takes place in 1997. Forensic Anthropologist Father Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) and his psychologist colleague Father Lucero (Sid Lucero) are asked to consult on the curious case of several children murdered, mutilated, and left at a dumpsite. The two investigate the crimes, forming connections that suggest the profile of a serial killer. The two get closer to the truth than anyone, but they keep running up against a broken system that seems completely uninterested in uncovering the truth.
Like the novel from which it is based, the movie isn’t really a straight procedural. There are actually substantial stretches of this movie where the main characters aren’t actively investigating. It’s getting at something a little more complex, a very specific concept that’s difficult to get across in what is essentially a standard narrative. The film isn’t about a serial killer, really. Or at least, it isn’t about an evil individual. It instead takes a long hard look at the systems and institutions that make up the rickety structure of Filipino society, and exposes a culture of complicity in perpetuating injustices in this nation.
This ambition can lead to a pretty dry narrative. It doesn’t have the pulsing beat of a real murder mystery. It doesn’t really move with the immediacy one might expect from a movie about a serial killer targeting children. The first half of the film feels stilted, the two priests investigating largely from a distance, talking out their theories instead of getting into the more exciting possibilities of having to interrogate some tough guy, or chasing down leads in dangerous locations. But this really gets at the heart of this film, these sequences highlighting how even the heroes, for all their crusading, are still part of a larger societal structure that separates them from even the people they’re trying to help.
The film’s complexities emerge slowly. As the story goes on, the pace of the mystery picks up, but it’s clear there’s still something else on the film’s mind. The film points to bigger villains than the monster roaming the streets, killing children. It breaks down the ways in which it can be difficult to do a little good in this society, and how bad deeds can so often go unpunished. The intelligence that the film so often displays doesn’t entirely acquit it of its pacing issues, but it provides the film with a certain heft, a seriousness that makes it worthy of genuine consideration.
It really helps that the film looks so good. JA Tadena’s lensing is next-level stuff, the film offering up one stunning frame after another. The direction is keen to highlight disparities in class and power in even the simplest of scenes. Nonie Buencamino proves yet again to be a terribly compelling performer, his Father Saenz competent, but visibly unaware of his own limitations. Sid Lucero brings his typical intensity, playing Jerome Lucero as a firebrand lacking the patience of his older colleague. The movie, with so many of its characters talking mainly in English, can feel strange on a performance level, but these actors paint a much clearer picture of the function of language by the end.
Smaller and Smaller Circles feel like a film that’s more rewarding as you step away from the cinema, contemplating how all the pieces fit together. It ends up saying a lot of interesting things, but it does it in the context of a procedural that doesn’t quite deliver the kind of thrills one might be expecting. And the answer it provides to the mystery is still as lacking as it was in the original novel. But where it excels is in extrapolating from those elements, concentrating instead on what this story of systemic failures says about who we are and why we’re here today.
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Rogue.ph. Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.