Smaller and Smaller Circles [movie reaction]

Smaller and Smaller Circles (2017) is a Filipino mystery crime film directed by Raya Martin, adapted from a novel of the same name by F.H. Batacan. I have read the book (link to my review) so I already know what will happen in the movie. We watched it  in Iloilo Cinematheque for 100 pesos last Saturday. I watched it with a friend who was also curious about the movie.

The story is about a series of murders in the Payatas dumpsite. Every month, a young boy is found killed and mutilated, with the face, genitals, and vital organs removed. Two Jesuit priests, Fathers Guz Saenz and Jerome Lucero (played by Nonie Buencamino and Sid Lucero) try to solve the crime and find the culprit. Along the way, there are other distractions: ambitious officers in the NBI and pompous titled priests.

NBI taps Gus Saenz as he is a forensic anthropologist. He tries to profile the killer by investigating his killing patterns on the victims. His partner is the younger Jerome Lucero, who as a clinical psychologist also offers valuable insights into the possible motivations of this killer.

The movie is quite faithful to the book. The movie's setting is just like how I imagined it in the book. The actors playing the two priests are spot-on and they also have moments of humor. In the movie, we hear the killer's voice narrating some lines in Tagalog. In the book, these lines were in English. Between each chapter is one page with the killer narrating his thoughts, and these are some of my favorite parts of the book - they sound ominous, yet it's also odd that as a reader you somehow can sympathize with it. As an adaptation of the book, this movie was good.

Sid Lucero as Fr. Jerome Lucero and Nonie Buencamino as Fr. Gus Saenz
I also like the parts where Gus Saenz has to play plastikan with a cardinal. Jerome's interactions with his mentor are always amusing. Atty. ArciƱas is an annoying and greasy NBI officer who tries to take over the case, and he's as annoying in the movie as he is in the book. As for the other side characters I don't really have an opinion on them. Carla Humphries plays a journalist friend of Saenz who helps the investigation. She's gorgeous and they exchange some French, but I didn't really like her acting.

The story also highlights the incompetence of government or religious institutions in the country. It shows the usual politics and personal agendas in the bureaucracies that tend to make problems worse and not solve it. The religious leaders care more about their appearance and reputation while the innocent suffer and justice doesn't happen.

The movie is set in the 90s, and I admire how the movie really felt 90s. The pace is quite slow at the beginning but gets more exciting near the end when they try to capture the killer. Though I have read the book, I'm quite surprised that I loved the scene where Father Gus Saenz finally confronts the killer in an abandoned school - I was surprised at how Nonie Buencamino portrayed a genuinely caring priest who tries to truly understand the villain as a tortured human being who is also a victim of the system. The confrontation was brief but powerful to watch.

As for the killer, I've said in my book review that I think he wasn't fully explored. Our understanding of him is even more limited in the movie, though his few scenes were superb.

As I've also said in the book review, I would like to see the two priests solving a much more challenging crime - but the book isn't a detective series. The movie is worth watching.

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