There is evil at work in Payatas. It is 1997: The mutilated bodies of dead young boys—with no faces, vital organs and genitals—are being found in this refuge for refuse. Pushed to the limit, the National Bureau of Investigation turns to an unusual asset to aid in the investigation—a Jesuit priest and forensic anthropologist named Fr. Augusto “Gus” Saenz, SJ.
Saenz figures out that one killer is behind all this, but meets ridicule from one investigator who says: “Fr. Saenz, you’ve been watching too many Hollywood movies. We all know there are no serial killers in the Philippines.”
Saenz doesn’t let the resistance stop him in his work. Together with his young colleague Fr. Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero), Saenz uses his training and instincts to draw up a profile of the killer in order to identify and stop him despite the meddling of higher-ups. But as Saenz gets closer, the killer becomes aware of the pursuit. This is the dark premise of “Smaller and Smaller Circles.”
The much-anticipated film “Smaller” is the feature film adaptation of the gripping book by F.H. Batacan. The first Filipino crime novel, the book was first published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2002—winning an autopsy table’s worth of awards—before being expanded and published again by Soho Press of New York in 2015. The movie is written for the screen by Ria Limjap and Moira Lang; it’s directed by Raya Martin.
This is a stunning film. Martin approaches the central mystery with a rigorously methodological feel. The film relentlessly keeps going forward, never breaking stride, all the way to its revelations. “Smaller” is less devoted to the who of the mystery than the how and the why. It is about getting to the bottom of what makes a man kill children. Then, there is Saenz, without the aid of the outrageous technology seen in “CSI”-style shows. It’s just one man and his ability to understand evil. All this is set against the unforgiving backdrop of poverty and despair. There are no cheap dramatic gimmicks or manipulative red herrings. Limjap and Lang’s screenplay rearranges parts of Batacan’s novel for a better screen experience, empowered by the fine work of editor Jay Halili.
Martin and director of photography J.A. Tadena shoot “Smaller” constantly in confined spaces, in blind corners, in the murkiness of artificial half-light. “Smaller” never feels like it has a sleek veneer of the aforementioned Hollywood movies. Shot on location, “Smaller” feels ugly when it should be ugly and thoroughly authentic in every scene. The grotesque aspects of the crimes show up on screen with disturbing clarity. Production designer Ercison Navarro crafts the scenes with the sharpness of a scalpel, and the musical score provides spookiness and scale.
This arms “Smaller” with the focus on Saenz’s battle against the darkness. This might just be the most unforgettable role yet for the character acting great Buencamino. His Saenz is dogged but also deeply religious. He believes his mission for God includes solving the killings and makes a place for himself in a world that believes he doesn’t belong there. He’s so good, you actually forget he’s not a real Jesuit priest.
Buencamino also has good chemistry with his on-screen comrade Fr. Lucero (Sid Lucero fits in well as a man dealing with his own baggage). Carla Humphries is alternately quirky and edgy as the tough-as-nails TV reporter Joanna Bonifacio, a former student of Saenz’s in France. There are great smaller parts for Bembol Roco, Christopher de Leon, Gladys Reyes and Raffy Tejada (his douchebag NBI agent Ben Arcinas truly compels abhorrence).
People often talk about wanting to see Filipino films that break the mold. One can take the givens—based on a bestselling novel, turned into a labor of love by a detail-oriented, devoted creative unit—and add the filmic elements—excellent acting, unconventional direction—and you get a film like this one. Moving and moody, “Smaller and Smaller Circles” is a film that deserves to be seen by intelligent modern Filipino moviegoers and a film that the intelligent modern Filipino moviegoers deserve the chance to see.
TBA Studios’ “Smaller and Smaller Circles” opens in cinemas on Dec. 6.