Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review of SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES: Contemptuous Corruption

December 10, 2017

Films about solving crimes have a certain fascination from me. Among Filipinos, a good detective movie is a rarity, as rare as a Filipino serial killer, if we are to believe what the film tells us. From the moment I saw the enigmatic trailer, I felt sure that this was going to be a movie that I will like. 

Until recently, I never knew that "Smaller" was first an English-language crime novel, the first in Filipino literature. Author F. (Felisa) H. Batacan won the Palanca Award for English Novel in 1999 for her manuscript. Her book was first published by University of the Philippines Press in 2001.

For each first Saturday of the past seven months, a young boy from Payatas was found dumped in the garbage heap, dead and horribly mutilated. Director Lastimosa of the NBI contacted a couple of Jesuit priests, Fr. Augusto Saenz and Fr. Jerome Lucero, for their forensic expertise to help solve the crime. The two had to hurdle opposition from power-hungry lawyers and corrupt church officials as they rush to solve the puzzling case before there was a next victim.

Under the direction of Raya Martin (his first "mainstream" film after a series of acclaimed art films), the film version of this pageturner was similarly riveting from beginning to end. The script (by Ria Limjap and Moira Lang) used Filipino for more realism but wisely retained the sharply-worded English lines where they mattered most. 

The gritty cinematography (by J.A. Tadena) and the moody musical score (by Lutgardo Labad and Odoni Pestelos) set the atmosphere of gloom and tragedy perfectly. The carefully detailed production design (by Ericson Navarro) brought us back twenty years ago to 1997. There was no hesitation to showing off the mutilated cadavers and actual crimes in bloody progress with some well-done prosthetics and exciting editing (by Jay Halili).

The nuanced acting performances of Nonie Buencamino and Sid Lucero as partners Fr. Gus and Fr. Jerome really brought the novel's fascinating characters to life. They felt like the local counterparts of Holmes and Watson, or Poirot and Hastings, and it was thrilling to watch their interaction as a duo. It was great their no-nonsense approach to crime investigation, as much as listening to them wax philosophical. I want to see them on work on a next case together!

Buencamino delivers some of the film's best lines of socio-political commentary and boy, can he dish them out! He is calm, serene, but hits hard. That confrontation scene between Fr. Gus and the imperious Cardinal Meneses (played by a slimy Ricky Davao) packed such a solid punch against Catholic Church hierarchy. He even exchanged lines in fluid French with reporter Joanna Bonifacio (played by a plucky Carla Humphries). Loved that small detail about his speaking with a slight lisp because of a painful rotting tooth in his mouth. 

Much criticism was raised against the inefficiency of the National Bureau of Investigation. While some balance was provided by the wisdom of Director Lastimosa (played by Bembol Roco), the ineffectual people under him, like power-tripping Acting Director Phillip Mapa (played by Christopher de Leon) and especially the media-whore Atty. Ben Arcinas (played by Raffy Tejada) were some of the most despicable characters in the story. 

Some commentary was also cast on local politicians like Councilor Tess Mariano (played by a delightful Gladys Reyes) and catty socialites like Mrs. Urrutia (played with bitchy relish by Roselyn Perez). Fr. Gus' aversion to dentists also brought some attention to how free community dental clinics work, with interesting characters like Dr. Gino Sta. Romana (Ross Pesigan) and Dr. Alex Carlos (Jun-jun Quintana).

This is definitely one of the best Filipino films released this year. The technical quality is remarkably precise and first-rate. It felt like watching "Se7en" (David Fincher, 1995), or "CSI" with more smarts and less technology. The relevant messages delivered against its targets are still pertinent and on-point to this day, as if twenty years did not pass. This story could be set today and it won't feel anachronistic at all. 9/10. 

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