Review: ‘Smaller and Smaller Circles’ and the Filipino identity

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Raya Martin’s cinematic adaptation of F. H. Batacan’s “Smaller and Smaller Circles” takes on the nation’s historical trauma, injustice, political amnesia, and national debt, and shows how they have lasted until now. Photo courtesy of TBA STUDIOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The most convenient way to assess “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” the latest film by Raya Martin, is to compare it with the novel by F.H. Batacan on which it is based, printed by the New York-based publisher Soho Press in 2015, and whose shorter edition is a prizewinning novella published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2002. Convenient, because over the fifteen years that the book has been around, studied in schools and popular among local bibliophiles, wisely marketed as “the first Filipino crime novel” and “a poetic masterpiece of literary noir,” the reflex is to measure the movie against the source.

The attempt to adapt it for the screen carries the baggage of a reader’s common, but not constant, tendency to favor the original material. This does not mean that the film will certainly be inferior, but it is put in a position in which it has to prove its reason for being, a situation that unfairly leans toward an approach that limits its qualities to its faithfulness to the novel or its liberal maneuvers, and denies it of possibly useful plural readings.

The book, particularly the expanded version, is admired quite judiciously. Having a pair of genial Jesuit priests as leads works like a charm, and the marriage of their spiritual nature with their forensic work, not to mention the biting sense of humor that comes handy in their difficult dealings with the clergy and the police, is uniquely satisfying. Educated and trained in Paris, Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) is one of the few forensic anthropologists in the country, juggling his teaching work at the Ateneo de Manila University and his church duties, his examination and identification of dead bodies of people who “disappeared” during martial law, and his pursuit of a colleague who has long been using his power to groom children and, worse, is safeguarded by the church.

His younger partner, Father Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero), also teaches at the university, a clinical psychologist who has been Saenz’s student before becoming his closest friend. When the National Bureau of Investigation seeks their help for the murders of kids in Payatas, a dumpsite in Quezon City where poor families reside and scavenge for a living, they cannot say no, especially upon seeing the way these boys are killed: their faces peeled off, their hearts and genitals removed, badly mutilated “as though they don’t matter.”

Smaller and Smaller Circles Father Lucero (Sid Lucero) and Father Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) are two Jesuit priests investigating a series of gruesome killings in Manila. Photo from TBA STUDIOS

Although the buddy genre, oftentimes consisting of the hero and his sidekick, is a staple of popular culture, Philippine literature has nothing like Father Saenz and Father Lucero. One can argue that the book’s main hook, after all, is not the uncovering of the crime or the psychology of the criminal, or the substantiation of the existence of serial killing in the Philippines, but the dynamics between the two priests — how their rapport drives the narrative and how this homosocial relationship (which sometimes borders on the homoerotic) provides the story not only the design but also the texture. One wilfully ignores the predictability of the plot turns, or even the dissatisfying reveal of the killer, because Saenz and Lucero are charming and efficient, funny and eloquent, which reflects the arguably Filipino sensibility of being drawn more to characters than narratives.

Batacan has added to her earlier manuscript richer descriptions of the characters (not just Saenz and Lucero). Every person on the fringe is given at least a sketch: the assistants, the killer’s parents, the lady who helps in obtaining documents, the boss who worries about his underling journalist who also happens to be the daughter of his dead friend. In one chapter, she puts together backstories of the mothers whose children have gone missing, on the dreadful day when the police come to visit them, ending their suffering with another suffering. It is a book full of people, their voices and noises, and the humanism seeping through it, the mental and physical crowdedness of being in Metropolitan Manila, and the effect of breathing its polluted air are sadly missing from the adaptation.

As someone whose background and practice in film and filmmaking tend toward the avant-garde, Martin is well-versed in cinematic transgression. From the structural design of “Autohystoria” and the moving stillness of “Now Showing” to the lunacy of “Buenas Noches, España” and the homeostasis of “Possible Lovers,” his works invite both quick dismissal and thorough evaluation. “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” even in its avowed mainstream quality, can do the same.

When one examines it on the basis of how it matches the novel, one becomes conscious of what is not there rather than what is present. One looks for the specific motivations of each character — why Ben Arcinas (Raffy Tejada) is an asshole, why Jake Valdez (TJ Trinidad) is a good cop, why Joanna Bonifacio (Carla Humphries) sleeps with a family man, why Arcinas’ assistant (shown briefly in the film played by the late Joy Viado) is crucial to his sudden softness, why Director Lastimosa’s (Bembol Roco) heart attack has far more urgent consequences — and the film, as much as it tries to give them nuance, is unable to account for them sufficiently. With the graying of the periphery, however, it manages to emphasize the linearity of the two priests’ quest to find their man.

One also tries to get used to its tempo. While it is often mentioned how Batacan’s prose has the pace of a film thriller, adopting its rhythm for the screen is another matter. The space in which her words operate is different from the space in which the visuals are organized. For a material so plot-driven and episodic, it is not wrong to suppose that “Smaller and Smaller Circles” could work better in the wider and talkier platform of television. But the fun is in the risk-taking, and Martin, with the help of the screenwriters Ria Limjap and Moira Lang, decides to deviate liberally from the material in the second half — perhaps, not only to move away from the imposing shadow of the source but also to scratch the itch to transgress, to shake things up and to defy expectations the way his other films mostly do.

The succession of three confessions by the end is a good example. Father Saenz listens to them — to Alex, to Emong, to Joanna — sitting on the floor, on his wheelchair, in the church, respectively, and they all bear an evident dramatic intensity, each speaking of the horror and grief that disturb them, while the priest, usually collected and strong-minded, is shown almost weak-kneed, shattered. Saenz, no matter how good he is at forensic science, is a man of church first and foremost, and this task of listening seems to be much harder for him, for he needs to take in the violence of their past and present and help them carry it. “Il faut laisser aller le monde comme il va,” Joanna quotes Voltaire. “We need to let the world go the way it is.” She mentions another neglected case of child abuse in the church and seeks his help. Saenz, teary-eyed, overcome by the threat of an impending ordeal, asks about breakfast.

There is also a deliberate gesture to use white to mislead the viewers, especially those who have not read the book, and make them feel the proximity of the killer. Father Emil (Jess Mendoza), without his garb, wears white, and his curiosity, in light of a previous conversation between Saenz and Lucero about an abusive monsignor, raises suspicion. Jittery and nosey, Dr. Santa Romana (Ross Pesigan) talks and smiles too much, which can be a giveaway. The killer, when he is revealed, also appears in white, the same way that people from several big institutions do — Cardinal Meneses (Ricky Davao), Councilor Mariano (Gladys Reyes), Director Lastimosa (Roco), Philip Mapa (Christopher de Leon) — a contrast with how Saenz and Lucero are often dressed in black or darker colors.

Unlike Martin’s previous works, “Smaller and Smaller Circles” is not likely to travel much around the festival circuit, owing primarily to its language. More than half of the film is in English, the kind of English that aptly describes Manila’s blurring of colonial and postcolonial ties. Although it revolves around poverty, its perspective does not purport to speak on behalf of the poor. It does not exhibit the aesthetics of third world cinema that most overseas programmers are keen on having. There is not much Payatas in it to entice them. Philippine cinema, in the neoliberal market of world cinema, is rewarded for its so-called individuality, but this individuality is limited only to the usual themes of poverty and unique cultural representations.

The use of language in the film, however, is a strong marker of social stratification. At one point, Arcinas, the bellicose lawyer who is excited to display his suspect before the media, asks the two priests if they need a translator, because the poor guy is not from Ateneo. Batacan, of course, has her characters from Payatas speak in English, which is highly unlikely and unrealistic (but is fine in the context of the book). But in Martin’s film, when the class difference between the characters is made manifest through one’s ability and fluency to speak English, one can see how class connects with larger schemes of power and makes one susceptible to abuse and exploitation — and how poverty, the country’s most neglected social problem, the rotten tooth waiting for decades to be extracted, has never been given the attention and solution it deserves, whoever leader is elected.

Smaller and Smaller Circles Carla Humphries plays Joanna Bonifacio, an investigative reporter helping out the two Jesuit priests in "Smaller and Smaller Circles." Photo from TBA STUDIOS

One can say, just for kicks, that “Smaller and Smaller Circles” is a coño film, not in the vulgar Spanish or Hispanic sense, but in the way Filipinos, sometimes with derision, call people who belong to affluent families and speak English or Taglish profusely. Martin may actually be alluding to his favorite Filipino director, the great Ishmael Bernal, whose several films in the 1970s and 1980s feature middle-class characters who are coños themselves: high-maintenance men and women, smooth and fast talkers, sharp and fashionable.

Bernal is usually discussed in comparison with Lino Brocka, sometimes to show how different they are, sometimes to show why Brocka is more known and loved, since Bernal’s films are more preoccupied with philosophical dialogue, something which the masses are said not to be concerned with. In “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” there is a serious scene between two widely popular Brocka actors, Bembol Roco and Christopher de Leon, arguing in straight English, shouting, and one cannot help but think, strangely, of Bernal. The way the moment can easily turn burlesque, or continue until they talk self-reflexively, or end with a dolled-up Hilda Koronel entering the room.

Bernal and Brocka, of course, had made films during martial law. And no discussion of contemporary Philippine politics can hold water without being connected with, or at least referencing, the atrocities of the Marcoses. Father Lucero lectures his class about it. (A deleted scene video is available online — longer and more adamant than the clipped version in the film.) He is angered by “a double disappearance, a double injustice” if people choose to remain apathetic, and says that “time and forgetfulness are the allies of abusers.” He is angered by how the People Power of 1986 is called “a bloodless revolution” while thousands of Filipinos died before and after it.

These time markers are important because “Smaller and Smaller Circles” has always had a strange, slippery relationship with time. The book is set in 1997, first published in 2002, published again to a wider international audience in 2015, and adapted for screen in 2017. It echoes clearly, with the work of Saenz and Lucero, the martial law years between 1972 and 1981, but whose lurid effects — trauma, exhumed bodies, grieving families, injustice, political amnesia, national debt — have lasted until much later, even up to now. Philippine cinema, let alone the country, is no longer concerned about finding an identity. Its identity, over the decades, has already been made.


"Smaller and Smaller Circles" is now showing in theaters. Visit the film's official Facebook page for listings.