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September 18, 2018



written by: Raymond Lee and Ria Limjap
produced by: Kevin J. Foxe
directed by: Raya Martin
rated: not rated
runtime: 111 min.
U.S. release date: September 19, 2018 (Asian Pop-up Cinema, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL – U.S. premiere)


“Smaller and Smaller Circles” is not a sequel to James Ponsoldt’s “The Circle”, but it is also an adaptation of a novel, in this case the award-winning novel by F.H. Batacan, called in some, ahem, circles, as the first real Philippine crime novel. The story involves a series of gruesome murders that are being investigated and upon learning that one would assume that those doing the investigating are members of law enforcement, but the two main investigators in this story are priests. A film containing such a story may pique your interest, as it did mine, and as did director Raya Martin’s approach to the macabre material. If only the overall story told here grabbed me in such a way I had hoped it would, considering the subject matter. 

Despite a local police officer insisting there are no such thing as a serial killer in the Philippines, mutilated bodies of dead street children are found in trash dumps in the slums of Manila. the first Saturday of each month for the past several months. The victims are likely chosen because they’ll never be missed, so a lack of investigation is within a degree of reasoning, from a certain point of view. That why it makes more sense to have two priests trying to figure out who’s killing these seemingly discarded children.




The opposition that Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) and his junior partner, Father Jerome (Sid Lucero), encounter isn’t the evil antagonist responsible for these killings and that’s perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film. As they get deeper and deeper into their investigation, they hit obstacles in places one would typically expect them to receive assistance. Father Saenz is well aware of the general perception the Church and priesthood has earned and is frustrated at how certain immoral behavior is ignored – in particular, that of Father (Caloy Limjap Soliongco), a colleague who’s managed to escape punishment for decades in regards to his inappropriate interaction with children. This isn’t a time in history where people are going out of their way to help priests, nevertheless Fathers Saenz and Jerome persevere – with the help of a reporter (Carla Humphries) who is disregarding in her own right, probably because of both her gender and vocation as well – and these characters become the best part of a story that may try the patience of certain viewers (guilty).

Although the way the two priests are written and acted exude a specificity and naturalness that’s genuinely satisfying, there’s something about the pacing and tone of the film they’re in that found me struggling to follow along. Maybe its because I watched the film in a fatigued state, but there were times where I wound up getting completely lost with who’s who and why.

Again, at least the characters were a draw. I appreciated how Buencamino played Saenz with a certain steadfast disposition, remaining a quiet man of faith and compassion, meticulously clinging to hope in mankind, as well as God’s grace and forgiveness. He becomes a more interesting and intriguing character the more time we spend with him. He teaches philosophy at a local school and works a side job as a forensic scientist who consults with the police occasionally. Truly this Saenz character could have his own one-hour dramatic television show, which would be an amalgam of police and medical shows we’ve seen in the past, using a lens with a spiritual/religious perspective.




The heinous depravity of these murders hits home in the scenes in where we see Saenz examine the bodies of these dead children. The first body is shocking to look at, with the boy’s face, heart and genitals completely removed. It becomes one of several scenes where I found myself admiring the production design team working with Martin. Obviously we begin to wonder what kind of person would commit such atrocities and it doesn’t take long for Martin and screenwriters Raymond Lee and Ria Limjap to give a voice to the killer in a story set in the late 90s, gradually offering some insight into his psychology as he touches on his own childhood which opens up some possibilities for his motivations (be they subconscious or deliberate). None of this justifies the killer’s actions, but it does provide the kind of dimensions typical of a ‘based on a true events’ story that provide a viewpoint free of stereotypical villainy.  

The titular circles represent all the different characters and institutions that get involved the more the investigation unfolds. Once circle can be the church, while another can be the police, still another the way in which journalism plays a factor in the story. These circles tend to intersect like an inevitable Venn diagram and some of the circles turn out to red herrings or fade away altogether. Other circles could be socioeconomic classes we run into throughout the story. All of the victims were poor without medical or dental records, therefore a challenge to identify, not to mention some didn’t even have parents. Another circle can be the legal bureaucrats the two priests engage, one of which is a committed counselor more concerned with her constituents than uncovering the truth behind the murders. What all of these circles have in common is that within each respective institution – be it local law or police, medical or political – there is a propensity for a pattern of bad practices or unhealthy behavior to become cyclical if left unchecked.

As Father Saenz navigates his way through these circles, he maintains his faith, even refusing to remove humanity from his perception of the killer. What occurs when the compassionate Saenz and the erratic killer eventually meet in the film’s harrowing third act may seem predictable for some, but what happens is also in line with Saenz’s own convictions.

“Smaller and Smaller Circles” is one of those dense stories that juggle many characters, perspectives and themes, the kind which would benefit greatly from an episodic approach. Certainly more could be gleaned and excavated from adapting  Batacan’s novel into a eight-episode mini-series, the kind that Netflix, HBO or Showtime have churned out lately. Maybe identifying such potential is what I was flummoxed by most as I watched this intriguing crime drama that ultimately left me disengaged. How I can’t specifically pinpoint why is my own mystery.



RATING: **1/2


“Smaller and Smaller Circles” is the second film in the lineup of the Asian Pop-up Cinema’s 7th Season, which is currently underway here in Chicago. For more info and a complete lineup, click here. 




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