Smaller and Smaller Circles: A tense Filipino crime drama

Smaller & Smaller Circles via courtesy Uncork'd Entertainment
Smaller & Smaller Circles via courtesy Uncork'd Entertainment /

Murder, corruption, and institutional abuse runs rampant in the U.S. release of the disturbing Filipino crime drama, Smaller and Smaller Circles.

Institutional abuse may live on as one of the slimiest phrases of expression to exist in spoken language, all due to what it represents. Taking advantage of people worse off than yourself, lying about the rings of crime being committed under the institution’s name and the efforts made to silence those who dare oppose these rules are just a few of the criminal tactics explored in the Filipino crime drama, Smaller and Smaller Circles.

Adapted from the Filipino crime novel of the same name, Smaller and Smaller Circles focuses its sight on the ongoing story of the Payatas murders: a series of unsolved murders of boys in the lower class area of Payatas, Philippines, which sprouts an investigation led by two Jesuit priests and an ambitious reporter eager to put all of the grisly crimes behind them.

That’s easier said than done though, as the movie gradually starts juggling the main narrative with a heaping dose of corruption and mass cases of abuse by religious authorities, turning the seemingly straightforward crime drama into a disturbingly compelling look into the systematic abuse perpetrated by the religious heads of power in the Philippines. Smaller and Smaller Circles functions as both a procedural drama and a disturbing study of abuse of power, but how does the final end product look after all of this?

More than meets the eye

Smaller and Smaller Circles starts out about as typical as the usual procedural drama would begin: a grisly crime is discovered by an unsuspecting bystander (in this case, a group of bystanders), prompting an investigation to be held to help catch the unknown killer. This story’s investigation is held by two Jesuit priests named Father Saenz and Lucero, who work for the Society of Jesus in their local church.

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The story of Smaller and Smaller Circles doesn’t simply focus on the core investigation, interrupting the expected story scenes with several interludes of boys wandering around at night as a voice meditates on their traumatic upbringing. It’s at these instances where the film becomes more than just a crime drama.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is best described as a strange mix-up between David Fincher’s Se7en and the 2015 drama, Spotlight, combining the murderous and corrupt nature of both films to create a damning critique of the police and religious forces in the Philippines. The film highlights the poverty that many of the victims live in, existing as lower class and “lesser” citizens that won’t be missed by society, least of all the large organizations rampant throughout the land.

The film makes it a point to show the details behind the children’s murders, pointing out disturbing patterns that ultimately mean something incredibly gruesome and chilling later on. The violence, though somewhat minimal for a crime drama, takes that leap into unsettling territory, being portrayed as clumsy, yet realistic and horrifying to watch as we learn of the implications behind it. If you didn’t already guess, this is anything, but a feel-good movie.

Smaller & Smaller Circles via courtesy Uncork’d Entertainment
Smaller & Smaller Circles via courtesy Uncork’d Entertainment /

Not flashy, but necessary

Smaller and Smaller Circles doesn’t bother trying to recreate these scenes from the novel as a rich, cinematic experience and ultimately, it is one of the film’s most necessary strengths. Though there is an emphasis on purposeful blocking brought to life by solid direction, there are not many scenes that beg the viewer to watch it on the biggest screen possible. Much of the film relies on the actors talking and contemplating on the increasing number of bodies and that can make for an initially stale experience.

The film’s writing brings up its quality, as it is solely focused on expressing the pain and frustration stemming from generational abuse and an immoral system of lies, corruption, and manipulation. The novel and film express the angered thoughts of people being taken advantage of by their trusted sources of power and that anger oozes through in the film’s negative depictions of religious authorities. The bias is strong, but it kind of needs to be in order to make this strong of a point.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is a film that, unlike a similar movie in Spotlight, may very well easily get swept under the rug by general audiences. Firstly, there’s the cultural barrier of this taking place in the Philippines that might turn off some American viewers (though the actor’s abilities to switch between Filipino and English might win some over). Secondly, the film is not nearly as hopeful as the end of Spotlight was. The end of the movie is far from the end of the true story brimming from under the main narrative. It just continues, much like how it is in life, which may make for a less positive experience.

That being said, I certainly would encourage readers to seek this out if it’s playing near you at all. Smaller and Smaller Circles represents the foreign market in the U.S. that is in desperate need of exposure and box office success, while most importantly representing the stories of abuse that are routinely ignored in these situations receiving the kind of exposure that could potentially lead to a change in this systematic abuse of power. It’s not the most exciting film of 2019, but it may just be the most necessary.

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Final Verdict: 7.5/10

Smaller and Smaller Circles will receive a limited theatrical release in the United States today. Have you seen it? If you have, what did you think of it? Sound off below!