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A typical healthy person watching the Filipino crime drama Smaller And Smaller Circles will at no point have a heart rate over 100 beats-per-minute. Since this film is a serial killer cop drama with subplots about police corruption and molestation in the Catholic church, that’s not great. There’s plenty to like in this film: the premise is interesting, the photography is slick, and the social commentary is well-aimed. Nonetheless, it’s a by-the-numbers thriller with fewer thrills than an average Law And Order episode.

Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) is a Jesuit priest who is also a forensic specialist. Together with fellow priest Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero), he often helps the police with murder cases due to his high level of expertise. When dead boys start turning up at the local trash dump with their faces and genitals cut off, the two men plunge headlong into the case. But there are obstacles in their way other than the murderer at large; Saenz has enemies higher up in the church due to his dogged pursuit of another priest who was reassigned for molestation. Additionally, corrupt city bureaucrats want to curtail Saenz and Lucero’s efforts and get a quick conviction through dubious means.

“…with fellow priest…he often helps the police with murder cases…”

The movie’s indictment of the Catholic Church’s practices regarding abuse is ham-handed, but in a way that I liked. This “morally pure man against the system” type of story has its pitfalls, but it’s soothing when done well.  The scenery-chewing villains in the church and the police department are fun, and the protagonists are amiable enough to root for. The movie wastes no time with character development; Saenz and Lucero lead simple, pious lives, and whether they help the secular world out of a sense of justice or pure boredom is left for the viewer to speculate.

Technically, this film channels much of David Fincher’s cold, methodical approach to serial killer storytelling, with mostly successful results. Scenes get to the point with a minimum of histrionics, and mutilated bodies are photographed head-on with dead-eyed brutality. There are some beautiful shots of Patayas’s slums in the nighttime rain. The only affective indulgence director Raya Martin allows himself is to overlay the music of children’s choirs on intense, disturbing scenes; Spotlight did this only once, but Smaller And Smaller Circles does it enough to be annoying and exploitative.

“The movie’s indictment of the Catholic Church’s practices regarding abuse is a little ham-handed, but in a melodramatic way that I liked.”

The major problem with Smaller And Smaller Circles, and it is a major one, is that the performances are just not at a professional level when the dialogue is in English. The characters fluidly shift between English, Filipino, and (I think) Spanish speech; I can’t speak for the other languages, or whether the issue is with the actors or the direction, but the English dialogue is stilted. The pacing is odd, the intonation is awkward, and the big emotional moments are hacky and general. Given how smooth the rest of the film is, many of these sequences are disorienting.

With their scientific pedigree, it’s a mystery in itself why there aren’t more crime procedurals about Jesuit detectives. Unfortunately, Smaller And Smaller Circles is no The Name Of The Rose. The broad shape of the ending is predictable; by the time you get to it, you could probably write the final confrontation yourself. This a likable, well-intentioned movie, but those qualities don’t take it far enough.

Smaller And Smaller Circles (2019). Written by Ria Limjap, Moira Lang. Based on the novel by F. H. Batacan. Directed by Raya Martin. With Nonie Buencamino, Sid Lucero, Carla Humphries, Gladys Reyes, Ricky Davao, Bembol Roco.

6/10

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