Smaller and Smaller Circles is an Excellent Mystery Set in a Seemingly Godless Universe

TL;DR: Raya Martin’s adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s critically acclaimed novel eschews the lurid thrills in its premise to examine corrupt institutions & God’s place within it.

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

If you’re a believer, it’s a question that will cross your mind in the face of continuous adversity. It doesn’t matter if your problems are big or small, since we all have our own crosses to bear. Prayers are the only lifeline some of us have, especially in a world where the weak & oppressed are at a disadvantage & the institutions surrounding them rarely help or address their problems; forcing them to act sinfully in order to survive, lest they end up in a worse state than they were before. But what happens when no one seems to be on the receiving end of our prayers? It can seem like there’s an all-powerful being who will judge us, but never listens to our sufferings. Or worse: there’s no one there in the first place.

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Father Gus Saenz (Nomie Buencamino) & Father Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero) find themselves in the perfect position to explore this conundrum in this movie adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s highly acclaimed novel, considered by many as the first Filipino crime novel. Both of them are Jesuit priests skilled in forensic science, whom are called by police director Francisco Lastimosa (Bembol Roco) to investigate a series of grisly murders targeting prepubescent boys in Payatas; a barangay famous for its huge garbage dumpsite & the poverty surrounding it. With the help of the Joanna Bonifacio (Carla Humphries), a nosy journalist who previously studied under Father Saenz, they’ll work together to figure out who is responsible for the senseless deaths.

The movie eschews the lurid thrills of its premise, since it’s not really what it’s about. It focuses more on our leads balancing their duties as priest who upholds the values of the Catholic Church, & as forensic experts helping out in any way they could. It embraces the process of solving the case, following clues & red herrings, & trying their best to figure out who perpetrated these murders & what kind of person would commit them. They also find themselves at the mercy of dysfunctional bureaucracies of the Catholic Church & the Philippine National Police, where corruption & incompetence fester rapidly that the powerless are not only at their mercy, but left to suffer continuously. While we get glimpses of the serial killer’s psychology throughout the movie – starting with the movie’s first scene – it never gives us the pleasure of enjoying the violence. It’s only teased out, & more often we see its chilling consequences. When we do get to see it, it is brutal, horrifying, awkward, & anticlimactic at times.

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It’s a workmanlike approach, allowing us to be absorbed in the brutal proceedings. It never gets too dark though, with its grim, deadpan sense of humor acting as a release valve that never overwhelms the sober tone it set. There’s also the throbbing score, a mix of subtle, pulsating synths, & the angelic voices of the Loboc Children’s Choir, sprinkled with quirky sound effects – like the sound of a dial-up router while the two priests are brainstorming – creating an atmosphere of doom amongst the Church & its young constituents. All of this is shot with a keen eye by J.A. Tadena, whose gorgeous cinematography drapes the movie with a grim color palette the further the leads are from positions of power, emphasizing how it feels to be ignored by institutions, & even God himself. After making critically acclaimed experimental films, Raya Martin has made another impressive work in his first foray into mainstream fare, that has enough quirky flourishes to make it stand out.

Surrounding the movie is a murderer’s row of talented actors. One of the best things about it are the surprise cameos from renowned actors delivering great work from bit parts – the best one involving an old woman giving Father Saenz a bag of maruya – that revealing them ruins half of the fun, so let’s talk about the performances that can’t be spoiled. Bembol Roco delivers a fiery performance as a morally upright police director who can unleash his anger in an instant. Raffy Tejado gives a layered portrayal as a slimy, incompetent attorney whose pride & ambition outmaches his intelligence & moral compass. Ricky Davao plays the role of Cardinal Meneses as a man who not only prioritizes the Church before his constituents, but also cunning enough to weaponize his supposed moral high ground.

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Arguably the best work comes from the leads, who crafted complex portrayals out of seemingly simple characters. Carla Humphries giver her role as a worldly, tenacious journalist with a warmth she shares with the people she’s familiar with. Sid Lucero exposes his character’s youth in his profession without diminishing his skills. Most importantly, Nomie Buencamino is a standout, who gives off a world-weary demeanor but never wavers in his fight against injustice.

These characters have moments where the stress of working on the case is starting to wear on them, yet they persevere; and not only because it’s the right thing to do. At one point, when Cardinal Menenses insinuates that Father Saenz has ulterior motives for joining the investigation, he replies: “There are many ways to give witness to faith.” We may not be sure if God exists, but Smaller and Smaller Circles suggests a way to bridge the gap between God & us mere mortals: helping the needy & exploited, & ensuring justice is served in the most humane way possible. It is the closest thing we have to an act of God, & those who have lost faith will need it.

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#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 3: Across the Crescent Moon

Who took a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year? This guy! Full-length & short films are eligible as long as a woman directed it; co-directing credits count too. The 3rd movie on my list is Baby Nebrida’s Across the Crescent Moon

Across the Crescent Moon was one of rejected entries for the Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 & was released this year without any fanfare or a huge audience clamoring for it to stay in theaters.

Let’s keep it that way.

It’s a movie made with the best of intentions, but almost every aspect of filmmaking fails it completely. That’s not even counting the horrible & confusing message at the center of this godawful movie.

It tells the story between Abbas (Matteo Guidicelli) & Emma (Alex Godinez). Abbas is a Muslim SAF agent married to Emma, a Christian woman who converts to Islam. Her conversion didn’t sit well with her Islamophobic mother Mita (Dina Bonnevie). This all changes when her younger sister & the rest of her friends are kidnapped by human traffickers. Now, it is up to Abbas & the rest of the SAF (Special Action Force) team to rescue all of them.

It takes a long while to get to the main conflict of the story, though. We are treated to a few action scenes, but the first half is dedicated to showing Emma’s life as a member of an ordinary Muslim family & the affluent Christian life she left behind. It is presented in the broadest, most annoying way possible. Conversations with her mother devolve into witless, screaming matches about religious intolerance. There are scenes of Emma learning about the Islamic way of life, but it turns into a lecture Emma & the audience has to listen to. These scenes are disconnected from the main plot. They aren’t used so we could know more about Emma, Abbas & the rest of their families besides their backgrounds, because the characters are flatly written caricatures. Subtlety just doesn’t exist in the world of Across the Crescent Moon.

There’s even a pointless scene set around Mita’s birthday party that goes on forever, showing us footage of everyone having a good time eating & dancing, while telling the audience once again about her strained relationship with Emma without adding any new wrinkles to their dynamic. At the same time, Emma’s younger sister (Jerene Tan) ask both of her parents’ permission about their planned beach trip in full detail. We see her get rejected by her mother, & get permission from her more lenient father (Gabby Concepcion), while they also talk about Emma’s strained relationship with her mother. It is mind-numbingly repetitive & useless.

That’s not even counting the blatant product placement for Tanduay products & Cobra energy drink, the latter of which has Matteo Guidicelli as its spokesman.

When we do get to the meat of the story, it just emphasizes how inept this whole endeavor is. The action scenes are a bunch of rote, badly edited, shaky cam nonsense that do not thrill in the slightest. What’s worse is these scenes play as pure propaganda, since it supports President Rodrigo Duterte’s fight against crime, specifically drugs. One of Duterte’s speeches is played through the TV & Mita approves of his agenda & Ku Aquino is even playing General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, where Abbas’ operation to save the victims of human trafficking fall under him. It creates a narrative that supports Duterte’s agenda without poking through the very visible cracks within it.

This creates a morally dissonant movie, where there are pleas for acceptance among Muslims amid negative stereotypes while supporting Duterte’s war of drugs, which has caused numerous deaths & human rights violations. Apparently, pleas for humanity appeal only to Muslims, but not to drug users suffering from addiction. It doesn’t help that for a movie that shines a light on the plight of Muslims, there are no actual Muslims in the cast. It even has Rez Cortez even plays a Saudi Arabian man with a stereotypical voice; which should be noted is listening to a PowerPoint presentation about their booming human trafficking scheme.

And none of the actors are good enough to save the horrible script. Matteo Guidicelli is terribly miscast here. He just can’t make the horrible script work for him. Not only that, he looks less like a local Moro whose parents are supposed to be Christopher de Leon & Sandy Andolong, & more like the Spaniards who colonized Mindanao. Dina Bonnevie, Alex Godinez & Gabby Concepcion do get a chance to ham it up, but the dialogue they’re spewing is so dire & lifeless, it just makes it all worse.

All the movie has is its excellent presentation, with high production values, clear cameras, & crisp audio, but that barely makes for an average film. Once you dig slightly above its shiny surface, Across the Crescent Moon reveals itself to be a shrill melodrama, bland action movie, & Duterte propaganda all wrapped into a single movie. It wants you listen to its message, but blunders through it by being terrible. But if the message is as muddled as this, that might be the one good thing about this movie’s existence.