MOVIE REVIEW: Smaller And Smaller Circles

by Rose Cruz Churma

Based on the novel of the same title by F.H. Batacan, the book is considered the Philippines’ first crime novel.

True to the book, the movie follows two Jesuit priests brought in as consultants after a slew of murders at the Payatas dump site, of young boys who are killed and mutilated. A serial killer is assumed to be on the loose.

Director Raya Martin created a gritty, hostile world using almost monochromatic darkened scenes.  The shots where the autopsies are being conducted were hard to watch—the bodies shown in the background. His use of sound and image gives the crime drama a feeling of dread.

I first read the book in 2017. The author wrote in the acknowledgment of this crime novel that “The first time I wrote this book—in 1996 when I was in my mid-twenties—I was angry about my job, about the state of my country, about the callousness, complacency, and corruption that had dragged it there.”

But she adds that the second time she revisited the book in 2014: “I found myself even angrier: about the state of my country, which seemed even worse.”

She channeled this anger by writing this crime novel about a serial killer that preyed on young boys who call Payatas home, the garbage dump of Metro Manila.

In the process, she describes a society where politics, corruption, the Catholic Church, and the desire for power all get in the way of finding the truth. The film can capture this social commentary—the driving force of the book as well as of the movie.

The lead characters are a Jesuit priest and his mentor—a forensic anthropologist who also is a Jesuit priest—who is portrayed well by seasoned actors Nonie Buencamino (as Father Gus Saenz) and Sid Lucero (as Father Jerome Lucero).

The local police force and the way it deals with solving crime also add a distinctive flavor to the mix, with Bembol Rocco portraying the head of the unit investigating the crime. Veteran actor Christopher de Leon had a minor role-playing the part of a government official.

But what I remembered the most was Ricky Davao who played the part of a high-ranking church official—a cardinal—strutting his stuff and relishing the part—which subtly implies the role of the Catholic Church in the creation of monsters like the serial killer.

In the book, the description of the crime scenes at Payatas was gruesome and unsettling—one can almost smell the stench, feel the heat and taste the sweat as it pours down your brows. The movie captures this well and is painful to watch.

In my review of the book in 2017, I noted that the author has channeled her anger well. She gives a face and name to the victims, their families and their community—bringing to the fore their humanity.

In the process, she indicts an entire country, the continued stratification of its society, and the poverty and injustice that so many have to endure. The director and the cast were able to translate this indictment into the film.

Set in 1997, the story uses a narrative device of exposing viewers to the thoughts of the serial killer at the start and employs more traditional investigative procedures and criminal profiling rather than the modern-day computerized forensic work we see on TV or our iPads.

This technique intrigues the viewer on what motivates the killer to murder these young boys.

Despite its social commentary or perhaps because of it, I found the novel engrossing, gripping, and a good read—but also unsettling as the images it brings forth lingers on, long after reading the last page.

The movie, on the other hand, lacked the tension inherent in the book. The pacing was flat and slow, which the superb acting of the cast and the technical finesse of the production could not overcome.

Perhaps, it is because I have read the book and know how it ends. So, a word of caution here: watch the movie first, then read the book.

ROSE CRUZ CHURMA established Kalamansi Books & Things three decades ago. It has evolved from a mail-order bookstore into an online advocacy with the intent of helping global Pinoys discover their heritage by promoting books of value from the Philippines and those written by Filipinos in the Diaspora. We can be reached at

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