Smaller and Smaller Circles (2019) Review

Based on the book by the same title, Smaller and Smaller Circles takes place in the late 90’s and is set in and around the slum areas of Metro Manila, Philippines where some of the country’s poorest children spend their days scavenging in trash heaps to survive. Terror strikes the area when a young boy is murdered and mutilated, beginning a series of similar gruesome deaths. Two Jesuit priests are enlisted to investigate: Father Saenz (Nonie Buencamino), who is also a forensic anthropologist, and Father Lucero (Sid Lucero), who is also a criminal profiler. Together, the priests face off against government corruption, monied elite, and the church on their journey to the truth. Meanwhile, the body count continues to rise.

Watching Smaller and Smaller Circles, I was inspired to see such a well-produced and well-shot movie coming from the Philippines. Having covered foreign films for over a decade, I think this is the first invite I’ve ever received for a Filipino movie, and I’m heartened by how polished the presentation is. From calm cleansing rains to the grit and grime of garbage dumps, the film captures the appropriate mood and tone for this gloomy crime procedural.

The story is mostly engrossing, as well. The slaughter of children is always provocative and adds a level of urgency to an already important task. Regrettably, the main plot is missing a personal stake for the main character, Father Saenz. Yes, of course, he wants to find the killer, but his success doesn’t have a personal effect on him, e.g. a child he knows isn’t targeted, the money for his lab isn’t dependent on solving this crime, he doesn’t have a personal attachment to a victim’s mother, etc. There is a moment late in the film when the killer seems to taunt Saenz, but that moment is never built on.

The story does weave in subplots to add a little more meat to the experience. These supporting stories cover child abuse in the Catholic Church, corruption in the government, and obstacles in the form of monied elite. Unfortunately, those facets aren’t as well-developed as they should have been. Most likely, they were included to adhere to the source material, and it’s a shame those subplots couldn’t have been massaged into the main story better.

The acting from the main cast is hit and miss. At times they come off as natural as regular people having normal conversations. Other times, they feel very wooden, responding to dialog and actions they were expecting. It’s hard to say if the problem is the writing or the direction, but the experience feels something like watching a stage play instead of a movie. The bit players, however, give standout performances. One actor, who has less than a minute of screen time, questions the kind of God she worships if He would allow her grandson to be mutilated so. Her delivery captures her character’s shattered faith, sorrowful loss, and pitiful attempt to be good natured in an evil situation. It’s performances like hers throughout the film that will leave lasting impressions.

Smaller and Smaller Circles does feel unnecessarily long, and that’s not just because of all the subplots. The film needed an editor with a firm hand; too many actions are performed in real-time. Early on, the priests work out a timeline of the murders by reading a date from a document and writing a date on a whiteboard. Then they move on to another document and repeat this process a handful more times. Quick cuts could have shortened that sequence considerably. In other scenes, Saenz chats with Lucero over a chat program on the internet. These sequences are presented to the audience essentially in real-time, complete with typing, reading, and voiceover. It feels like there’s no economy of visuals, and the film drags for it.

Despite the pacing issues and lack of character development, I don’t think I’d tell moviegoers to skip this one. Smaller and Smaller Circles is delightful in many ways, especially in its cinematography that ceaselessly charms throughout the movie. The production quality is also top notch, and the filmmakers have managed to capture the technology of the late 90’s with such verisimilitude that I questioned when the film was made. So, don’t let the rough parts dissuade you from checking out this otherwise quality film.