It’s More Complicated Than Serial Killers in ‘Smaller and Smaller Circles’

We’re a society that loves serial killers, but only a certain image of serial killer: a white man with a tortured past who can easily be slapped on a t-shirt and lauded as some kind of perverse hero. Filipino director Raya Martin taps into this obsession with his adaptation of Felisa Batacan’s award-winning novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles (it was also the first Filipino crime novel). But, instead of glorifying or deifying the killer, Martin instead portrays him, and the entire case, with nuance and pain, depicting a world unseen by most Western audiences.

In a rain-soaked Payatas, reminiscent of the dreary city in Se7en, two Jesuit priests, Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) and Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero), are assisting in the investigation of a potential serial killer who is targeting young boys in the slum district. Seven bodies have been found in a local garbage dump, each missing his face and genitals. Saenz and Lucero, forensic investigators as well as priests, are working against time and the police to solve this case, fighting tooth and nail for resources. While they are investigating these murders, they are also combating the rampant sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Both men are trying to do good by the Lord, but are confronted with a more harrowing reality.

This is a heartbreaking film about those whose deaths are overlooked due to their position in society—the deaths of these impoverished boys would be ignored without the attention of Saenz and Lucero. Despite the meticulous and repetitive nature of the murders, the police refuse to believe there is a serial killer is loose in Payatas. It is a glimpse into corruption in the Philippines and a potentially horrific reality where deaths are overlooked in the name of saving face with the press.

Martin weaves an enthralling serial killer narrative as the priests uncover evidence and patterns, working together better than any pair of cops or journalists in recent crime dramas. There is an added layer of urgency to their investigation as the killer’s voice narrates parts of the film, giving him an strange level of omnipresence I haven’t felt in previous serial killer films. Smaller and Smaller Circles does not want to glorify this killer by any means, but wants to offer a look into his mind and make him more than just a character shown briefly at the end. The film aims to show his pain without making excuses, a type of nuance that many pieces of serial killer media could use. This isn’t about cryptic letters or journals—it is about interrogating the effects of an abuse of power.

It is a beautifully foreboding film, either cast in shadow or exposed under bright, artificial light. The cinematography also deftly captures the reality of life in the slums without exploiting its population. Yes, these people are poor, but there is no colonial or exploitative gaze as the camera shows the streets of Patayas. Martin aims to show a depressing reality, but not in a way that relies on lingering on the suffering of others outside of these crimes; he does not try portray a Western idea of the Philippines.

Parts of this film move at such a slow pace, which is frustrating for the viewer but portrays the infuriatingly laborious process of wading through the legal system. It is a political process, full of fighting, paperwork, and roadblocks put up by corrupt cops and, in this case, clergy members. While I appreciate this attempt to illustrate the process, it still feels like Martin tries to to push so much bureaucracy into the film that it bogs down the narrative with too many characters and relationships to keep track of.

Martin’s Smaller and Smaller Circles offers a fresh perspective on the serial killer film, showing what these kinds of crimes mean outside of the Western cinematic world. While it may be a bit too ambitious at times, trying to tackle one too many problems than its run time allows, it tells a terrifying story about abuses of power and its many manifestations. This film is able to portray gruesome crimes without romanticizing them; it instead aims to show a dark and horrifying reality that no one should ever aspire to.

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