Smaller and Smaller Circles (Philippines, 2017)

Watching Smaller and Smaller Circles can be fruitful once you get past its formal lapses. Inconsistencies in tone are the first thing one notices from the film. At first, it feels like a dark, edgy thriller, then, later will seem to become an episode of an afternoon telenovela. Perhaps these lapses can actually be helpful in understanding the film.

Smaller and Smaller Circles takes the form of a procedural. It follows two Jesuit priests, Father Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) and Father Lucero (Sid Lucero), who wake up to the news that one priest has been transferred to another church as a result of the order internally handling a case of alleged child abuse. Later on, they are tapped to help with a peculiar case of serial killings in the slums of Quezon City. The priests examine the bodies of children found on Payatas dumpsite for clues to find who’s behind the killings.

Raya Martin’s adaptation of F. H. Batacan’s novel tries to hook its audience in two ways: through the crime-solving aspect and its commentary on bureaucracy. This is why the film is uneven in tone. The two things are presented separately as if one is just a blockade for the other, that bureaucracy is standing in the way of the development of science (their science). The first sequence establishes this very premise: the case of a priest being accused of abusing his younger church assistants has been dealt with internally by the church. This is the source of Saenz’ disappointment with the church.

The revelation presented in the film is something that does not really surprise its audience: that the priests’ forensic practice and bureaucratic problems are not separate. What’s really the central conflict here is not the attempt of the two priests to resolve the serial killer case, but the attempts of other forces of the bureau’s and the congregation’s structure to intervene with the operation of their forensic laboratory. This instance is presented in uninteresting manner. In a telenovela-like confrontation at the lobby of a theater, it is revealed to Saenz and Lucero that their laboratory’s fund will be cut to be disbursed to other projects by their order. A seemingly powerful woman confronts the two priests and tells them not to pry more into the case of child abuses in the church or else their fundings will run dry.

What might seem to be a critique in the beginning is, in the end, resolved by the very thing it tries to critique. Smaller and Smaller Circles doesn’t offer anything new. It seeks to resolve conflict through a negotiated approach to bureaucracy by arguing for secularism. It may seem edgy because it is the insider who argues for it, but what makes its argument weak is this very set-up: secularism, in the case of the film, does not do away with the abuses and corruption of bureaucracy, it only displaces power from one structure to another. Saenz is really arguing for the accused priests’ case to be brought to criminal court, and for his other practice as criminal psychologist. What is ultimately resolved his issue with bureaucracy that affects his forensic practice is through his relationship with the investigation bureau chief.

In a way, the film itself is consistent with this. Indeed, it’s almost self-aware. Quoting Voltaire at the end (Il faut laisser aller le monde comme il va — We need to let the world go the way it is) rings the very acceptance of this set-up. But reflecting on the whole film, the last statement does not seem to be accepting it in defeat. Rather, it is a way of celebrating the victory of the bureaucracy it so approves of.

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