There are only three things I liked about the movie adaptation of Smaller and Smaller Circles.
Chief among them is the lighting and cinematography of the locations. It is a joy to see accurate and gritty representations of the dumpsite killing floor as the haunt of the movie’s murderer.
Payatas looks aptly claustrophobic and grimy, and when it rains in Quezon City—which is like half the time on-screen—the abandoned alleyways become a Third World hunting ground for the killer. Even the grim lighting of the Jesuit investigators’ laboratory is right out of a mad scientist’s DIY workshop, complete with anatomical posters and classical guitar music (and an occasional Wolfgang song).
Second is that some of the stars really do steal the show in their roles like surprising jewels in the dark, ponderous blanket that the filmmakers have crafted. Ricky Davao shines as the smug and smarmy Cardinal Meneses, determined to cover-up the sexual dalliances of his fellow priests. TJ Trinidad is quietly excellent as Deputy Jake Valdez, who carries himself with the casual violence and bravura of a NBI agent, vacillating between a musing and intense middle-distance stare and a focused, even more intense reptilian gaze. He embodies the only credible law enforcement role when everybody else seems determined to phone-in theirs.
And Carla Humphries as Joanna Bonifacio, the only lead female role, is a spunky, well-dressed TV journo at once standing out and fitting in, beating the rest of the competition with her spiffy 90s outfits. She's half-misfit, half-preppy, and her Paris-educated smarts stick out in a crime beat that dominated by chest-thumping macho types trying to be hardcore.
Lastly, the final act of the movie is a very cool, very clever twist that subverts the original material’s ending, giving it a bloody sheen of the Grand Guignol, deviating joyously from the source material and finally, but sadly way too late, finding its own footing to give us the denouement we sat through all the first and second acts for.
It is unfortunate that the rest of the movie is a long, tedious morass of half-baked procedural and muted narratives driven by almost unrelatable characters. Many times in the first hour I found myself zoning out, dozing off and waking up to see that nothing much had transpired. I found that others in the theater were checking their phones, and the guy in front of me had his head tipped way back on the headrest, snoring softly.
Who is killing the children of Payatas in the 1990s?
This is what the movie seeks to answer as we open with the mutilated body of a young boy found among the mountains of the garbage dumps. As the movie progresses, more bodies are found with the same marks of disfigurement, grisly and obviously ritualistic.
Stumped, the NBI turn to their forensic consultant Father Gus Saenz, S.J. (Nonie Buencamino) and psychologist Father Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero), also S.J. The former has earned a measure of infamy because he helped unravel a child abuse case against another priest a few years back.
These two Jesuit priests, with occasional assistance from their tough and pretty TV journalist friend Joanna Bonifacio, endeavor to solve the gruesome, serial murders of the dumpsite boys with the help of the crusading NBI Director Francis Lastimosa (Bembol Roco). Arrayed against them are bureaucratic obstacles, the limitations of '90s forensic technology, and the overbearing social prejudice that: “There are no serial killers in the Philippines!”
Handling the info dump in any mystery, thriller, or whodunit is always key to the enjoyment of the mental exercises necessary to make the connections and eventually solve the crime. Almost every crime procedural series and movie recognizes the inherent tedium of this practice and thus uses a variety of techniques to keep the viewer engaged.
Not so with SASC. The two priests keep talking through their notes and theories and we are left with static shots, watching talking heads, like a classroom lecture with none of the helpful visuals of even a Powerpoint deck, or one of those spiffy CSI montages. Trust that they’re determined to talk us into and through their eureka moments.
To be sure, these long, lingering shots do yield some empathic, occasionally revelatory passages. In one scene, the grandmother of one of the murdered boys walks into Fr. Saenz’s office to thank him for aiding the investigation, bringing a gift of maruya and many disturbing questions.
She exclaims: “Father, why is God like that? Why did he allow this to happen to my child? Sadista po ba ang Diyos?” Saenz stutters and searches visibly for an answer, and comes up with “Hindi po Diyos ang gumawa nun sa inyong apo. Tao po.”
Many will also comment about how this movie acts as commentary and draws parallels to the current spate of EJKs in the country (and author FH Batacan has certainly paid a small price in the form of online bullying for this mistaken case of intent), but they speak without reflection because the first book (yeah, there are two versions) was released in 2002 as a novella without thought for state-sanctioned killings, but rather as a commentary on our cultural prejudices on serial crime and the failures of our law-enforcement procedurals, policies, and bureaucrats.
Later, when Batacan bagged an international publisher, they asked her to expand and explode the topics in the slim volume, and thus the thick book version came out in 2015.
In this reincarnation, the author dives deeper, taking her time surveying and chewing on the complex narratives of sexual abuse by priests, cover-ups by the Catholic Church, abuse of power in both religious and law-enforcement sectors, the fragility of government positions, lack of data, the helplessness of the poor against such abuse and the crimes they are prey to.
All of it ringing true and hitting home against the almost fantastic premise of clergy being way better investigators. And the very heart of the story: yes, serial crimes do happen in our country.
Elsewhere, whole excerpts of dialogue are lifted verbatim from the book—which were better executed on print—load the scenes with more info dump, sometimes triple teaming our attention as Saenz and Lucero exchange IM messages, with Saenz reading aloud what he’s typing, the camera lingering on the computer screen, and the subtitles also repeating what’s already written.
There is much re-treading like that elsewhere, and even the inclusion of establishing setups, cameos, and minute details (Saenz’s tooth, penchant for snacking, Lucero’s dreams) are questionable, unnecessarily lengthening the whole movie when the mindset and profile of the killer, so crucial in these profilings, could have been lavished with more attention. Towards the end we are unsurprisingly left with zero emotional heft to the revelation of the killer.
Like a child buckling under the demands of trying to accurately fire an AK-47, the movie tries its hardest, but simply misses all the marks. What could have been a powerful message for commentary and metaphorical parallels with our headlines is left in the hands of a marksman better suited for handling different weapons.
Adaptations can be a tricky thing. And this one may have small, brief joys of blood and gore. Nevertheless, it's an important, benchmark step in the canon of Pinoy crime movies.
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