Release Date: March 1, 2019 (Limited)
Director: Raya Martin
Runtime: 111 Minutes
Watching genre films from other countries is always a strange and delightful experience. On the one hand, it’s hard to escape the genre trappings that have become internationally prominent, but on the other, you find a cultural specificity that (when done well) can mold those trappings into something engaging and compelling. It’s often jarring, but in cases like Raya Martin’s Smaller and Smaller Circles, the cultural specificity generates a mix of tropes to refreshing ends.
Smaller and Smaller Circles centers around two Filipino priests with medical/forensic backgrounds who assist the police in criminal investigations. The elder priest, Father Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) is deeply concerned with corruption in the church and a government that is doing his parishioners wrong. The central case in the film is the murder and mutilation of teenage boys in the slums of Manila, and the priests’ assistance is seen as problematic for the police (who want a quick resolution from a forced confession) and their church overseers (who see these priests as rabble-rousers).
Stylistically the film is in the vein of David Fincher. From the greenish tint laid over every shot to the dynamic between the elder and younger priest-detectives, it’s impossible to watch this film and not be reminded of Se7en and Zodiac. And yet, with priests as the central characters, there is an undoubtedly Bressonian tinge to the film that seeps into the style. There is very little scoring throughout, and shots of objects and faces always trail on for a little longer than they likely would in a Hollywood detective film.
Furthermore, the way the film is structured – mostly around a series of conversations – gives the entire process the tone of a confessional. As though the film is opening with Father Saenz saying, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned” – and as each scene progresses – he has to grapple with his own sins of pride, wrath and envy while also feeling the weight of others from above and below. Saenz grounds the film in a moral universe that he nevertheless feels condemned by, making any joy you might otherwise take in the detectives being proven right a hollow victory.
While the film is occasionally on the nose (Saenz’s name is often said similar to the word science, which feels too cute by half), it is an engrossing piece of cinema with a wonderful lead performance at its heart. It never moves into the territory of preaching about how to solve the world’s problems and instead preaches on the personal ethics of courage and humility and the ultimate impossibility of stabilizing the relationship between the two. It’s always a conversation, always a confession, always a process of reflection that allows us to continue living.