A Serial Killer Movie Where the Hunt For the Serial Killer is the Least Interesting Part.
DIRECTED BY RAYA MARTIN /FILIPINO/ 2017
Smaller and Smaller Circles is a movie from the Phillipines based on the novel of the same name by F. H. Batacan. The novel was one of the first, if not the first crime novel from the Phillipines, and had a relatively large print run (relatively large- it was reprinted four times, for a total of 6000 copies. That’s a pretty big deal in the Phillipines). Like the best works in the genre, Smaller and Smaller Circles seems less interested in the crime itself than in the system wherein the criminal was formed.
When the body of a young boy is found, all signs point to this being the second victim of what turns out to be a serial killer. The police in charge of the investigation turns to Father Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) to bring his forensic skills to help. Saenz made his rep investigating charges of sexual abuse. This hasn’t earned him any fans within the church, but Police Director Lastimosa (Bembol Roco) needs him, and respects his expertise. So Saenz, with the help of his junior partner Father Lucero (Sid Lucero), gets to work on the case.
The other cops working the case are less enthusiastic. They would prefer to find a convienent scapegoat to hang the crimes on, earn some good press for apprehending the killer so quickly, and move on to the next case. They ignore the evidence the priests present, and dismiss the psychological profile the priests put together of the likely killer. It doesn’t come as any surprise when more victims begin to turn up even after the police announce they have caught the man they claim is responsible.
The victims are all invariably chosen from the boys who live in the slums of Manilla, and they’re caught in the killer’s web as they scavenge among the city dumps, searching for items they can use, or resell to earn a little income for their families, or even looking for food to eat. They are among the poorest people in the country, and people only notice they are being preyed upon when the bodies pile up higher than can be ignored.
In the story, none of the traditional institutions of authority can be counted upon. The church is busy covering up its role in protecting pedophile priests; the police don’t care about the truth, they just want a win; politicians are only concerned with winning the next election. Meanwhile, a killer stalks his next vicitm, and no one wants to support the only men seeking to catch him.
This institutional selfishness is the same barrier Saenz found himself up against when he was investigating abuse allegations in the church. Those in power and postitions of privilege only wish to preserve the current order. They’re happy to hand out charity, but nobody wants to take a hard look at the system that allows serial killers- or abusive priests- to not only continue preying upon their victims, but to thrive.
The somber mood of the film is alleviated by the easy comradeship between the two priests
Smaller and Smaller Circles hits all the beats you’d expect from a serial killer movie- even one from a far away country. There are the scenes where the police realize mulitple murders are related, the grim autopsies, the pyschological profiling, the scenes of the killer stalking his next victim, and so on. Director Raya Martin has a good visual style. The somber mood of the film is alleviated by the easy comradeship between the two priests and the actors portraying them. When one of them has to leave the country for a short trip, the other is adrift without his partner.
And its the character work that gets you through the slower sections of the film. As mentioned, it feels like for everyone involved, the actual mechanics of a criminal investigation is the least interesting part of the story. The problem is the movie devotes a whole lot of screentime to it. It tends to drag when the movie tries to focus on the murders. The real meat of this movie is the critique it makes of authority.