Atmospheric and creepy, with characters and a setting far more interesting than the due the movie gives them, “Smaller and Smaller Circles” is a serial killer thriller set in the Philippines.
It’s about two Jesuit priests, amateur sleuths, hunting a monster who is hunting and murdering the nation’s poorest and least visible — pre-teen boys born into poverty.
Father Saenz and his junior partner Father Lucero connect the clues from mutilated bodies being found in garbage dumps, where boys that age and in that financial state — “breadwinners” for their starving families — scavenge.
With a generally inept and often corrupt NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) less interested in these cases than you’d hope — “Father Saenz, you’ve been watching too many Hollywood movies! There are no serial killers in the Philippines!” — grizzled Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) and history teacher and forward thinker Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero, yes, his name is the same) take it upon themselves to unmask the killer.
As Father Gus has been tracking serial abuser priests transferred from one Catholic diocese to another, part of the worldwide Catholic priests abuse scandal, sleuthing, criminal profiling and psychological evaluations of human behavior and motivation have entered his skill set.
Lucero’s troubled youth (he must have been abused) and sharp eye and mind make him a qualified sidekick.
They trace the string of corpses through Payatas, a district of Quezon City, ponder possible Church connections to the crimes because of the Church’s large presence in the slums — feeding, ministering to and providing medical care to the impoverished — and fight police indifference and eagerness to close the case in “the usual manner” with one of their “usual suspects.”
Director Raya Martin has created a polished, finished film with eerie plainsong (religious choral) music underscoring the grey exteriors and florescent interiors where the priests do their sleuthing, carry out interrogations and reason out a profile of this murderer.
Corruption is meant to be a big subtext here, with Father Jerome lecturing his students about the connection between Marcos Era Philippine excesses and the unaccountable Catholic Church.
If the film feels somewhat starved of drama, excitement and back story, it’s very helpful to remember that journalist Felisa Batacan’s 2002 source novel was the first ever crime novel written in Filipino and published in the Philippines.
We don’t know how the priests acquired specific skills, even if we’re given their motivations and the suggestions that these are an outgrowth of interest in tracking down child molesting priests.
A chat show in which the chuckling, dismissive Cardinal and too-cozy-with-the-Church head of the NBI are grilled and debate plays like local TV you might have watched in the 1960s in the US — primitive sets, hand-held microphones, unpolished.
That’s a nice analogy for the film, being the first-ever Filipino effort in this genre.
There’s a foreign born TV reporter (Carla Humphries) who works with the priests and swaps favors with them, a hunky young detective still idealistic enough to care and other cliches that you’d see on an amateur TV detective series — “Murder She Wrote,” “Monk” or “Father Cadfael.”
One other necessary but missing ingredient for this again FIRST EVER Filipino murder mystery/crime novel is suspense. The film doesn’t give us a potential victim to connect with and fear for, doesn’t discover the magic of the “ticking clock” thriller and sort of meanders towards a solution that, while interesting, is never that engaging.
At some point this story in English, Filipino and French with English subtitles drags and wears to the point where the succumbs to the temptation to treat it as an artifact, not a nail-biting thriller or compelling mystery.
I wouldn’t mind seeing these characters again (Batacam penned a sequel, I hear), because the bare bones of a First Gen crime thriller are here. It’s just that everybody involved needs more practice in the genre to get it right.
MPAA Rating: TV-14
Cast: Carla Humphries, Nonie Buencamino, Sid Lucero
Credits: Directed by Raya Martin, script by Raymond Lee (as Moira Lang), Ria Limjap, based on the novel by Felisa “F.H.” Batacan. An Uncork’d release.
Running time: 1:51