Please find the time during this harried holiday season to watch “Smaller and Smaller Circles.” This is the title of the book by F.H. Batacan whose first version, a slimmer, more compact but (to me, at least) more intense procedural and psychological thriller won most of the major book prizes in 2002. A second expanded version was published by an American publisher in 2015.
I remember picking up the first “Smaller and Smaller Circles” from the booth of UP Press at the National Book Festival not expecting much given its plain cover. But when I sat down to read it, it kept me up all night, I could not sleep without finding out the ending! Surprisingly, the same thing happened when I got my hands on the second version, even if I knew the plot outline by then. Part of my fascination was the fact that it was written by a Filipino, with no apologies for creating an erudite Jesuit investigator (who loves opera and speaks French), and tackling such sensitive matters in this Catholic country as clergy (and laity) sexual abuse, bungling law enforcers, political shenanigans and yawning social divides. No surprise, therefore, that the filmmakers decided to bet on the book since they knew it has a huge fan base. My most ardent wish, in fact, is that F.H. Batacan come up with a sequel now na!
The film also hints at current events, our tokhang-tainted times, even if the book is set in the late ’80s and early ’90s. A hint: the masking tape-wrapped head in the film’s poster. And so, too, the willful denial and indifference of those who know about the murders but ignore them because the victims are the voiceless and the powerless, those invisible to the rest of us.
It may just be expected that the film is “dark,” and not just in the thematic sense but also in terms of the murky footage (I suspect production costs also had something to do with it).
In the garbage dumps of Payatas, bodies of pre-pubescent boys keep turning up: the facial skin peeled off and missing vital organs. Fr. Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino), a Jesuit who trained in forensics abroad, is called in to assist the NBI in its investigation. With the help of his associate, psychologist-priest Fr. Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero), and investigative journalist Joanna Bonifacio (surprising talent Carla Humphries), he tracks down the back histories of the murdered boys, searching for commonalities that tie them to each other and with the serial killer.
Father Saenz’s investigation touches on not just the abject poverty of the victims and their parents, but also on the convoluted politics of law enforcement in this country, as well as on the possible motives of a killer who needs not just to “erase” his victims’ identities, but also it seems to obscure his own identity.
“Don’t you know that there are no serial killers in the Philippines?” A bungling NBI official demands of Fr. Saenz at one point. But, of course there are, we just don’t have the skills, the imagination or the daring to go after them, especially if the victims are too poor and humble to matter.
Director Raya Martin, who schooled himself in indie filmmaking but follows the book’s rather traditional arc in “Smaller,” must be credited for gathering a sterling cast of actors who lend the weight of their personas to their characters.
Foremost of them is Bembol Roco who portrays the NBI director with forthright gruffness; Ricky Davao who is appropriately slimy as the complicit Cardinal; and Christopher de Leon in a surprise cameo as the ambitious, politically-astute acting NBI director.
Credit must be given as well to the cast of child actors who, even without any substantial lines, create an ensemble embodying vulnerability and tragedy.
“Smaller and Smaller Circles” may not be as sleek or sophisticated as its counterparts in the developed world. (We plan to watch “Murder on the Orient Express” for contrast.) But if you claim to believe in the potential of our Pinoy filmmakers, you owe it to them and to yourself to make time for the film, which will fulfill any local cinephile’s hunger for a good, satisfying two hours in the cinema.