‘Smaller and Smaller Circles’ digs beneath the surface

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Sid Lucero and Nonie Buencamino star as fictional priests/detectives in F.H. Batacan’s best selling crime-thriller

Movie adaptation of first Filipino crime novel hits cinemas next week

While the international literary world has always made stars out of such novelists as Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, as well as Stephen King, Stieg Larsson and Gillian Flinn in the contemporary setting, Philippine literature is still developing the genre of written crime thrillers.

As so, when Maria Felisa Batacan published “Smaller and Smaller Circles” under her penname F.H Batacan, the industry found an instant gem.

The novel tells the story of teacher-student Gus Saenz—a respected forensic anthropologist—and Jerome Lucero—a psychologist. Both Jesuit priests as well, they are tasked to solve the murder of young boys who were eviscerated and thrown in the teeming slums of Payatas.


As they dig deeper to solve these murders, they discover horrifying realities of 1990s Manila that seem unnoticeable on the surface.

The first edition of what was to become the “first Filipino crime novel” was initially an entry to the annual literary competition, Carlos Palanca Memorial Award in 1999. Batacan won the competition’s first place in the Novel Category.

Bembol Roco

In 2002, the University of the Philippines Press published Smaller and Smaller Circle’s as a 35,000-word novella, which earned praises from critics. That same year, it won the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award, and in 2003, the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award for Fiction.

Arguably, the novel came to public consciousness—and beyond the confines of academic reading—when New York-based publisher Soho Press released the 353-page expanded version of the novel in 2015, twice the length of its original form.

Transition to screen
With the story’s success in print, its big screen adaptation has naturally excited not only the title’s original fans but film aficionados as well.

Award-winning director Raya Martin (“Autohystoria,” “Independencia,” and “La última película”), and screenwriters/producers Ria Limjap and Moira Lang lead the creative brains of the production.

As it turns out, the idea of the film adaptation dates back in 2015 when Limjap proposed the concept to TBA Studios’ Fernando Ortigas, E.A. Rocha and Vincent Nebrida.

Around the same time, other production houses had been approaching Batacan, but fortunately for TBA, she chose to go with the maverick team behind critically acclaimed movies “Heneral Luna” and “Birdshot.”

Christopher de Leon

“When we first read the script, we all felt strongly about the project that it wasn’t difficult to decide whether we wanted to make the it or not,” co-executive producer Nabrida told The Manila Times at the grand press conference of the movie.

“Also, we hadn’t really done something adapted from a book, so I thought it was interesting,” executive producer Rocha added.

With both parties positive on the new partnership, the next task was to find stellar actors to give life to the story’s iconic characters.

For the lead roles, noted actors and thespians Nonie Buencamino and Sid Lucero were cast, along with Carla Humphries as investigative journalist Joanna Bonifacio, and the award-winning Bembol Roco as NBI Director Francisco Lastimosa.

Completing the film’s stellar roster are some of the biggest and most celebrated names in the industry: Christopher de Leon, Ricky Davao, TJ Trinidad, Raffy Tejada, Jess Mendoza, Gladys Reyes, Junjun Quintana, Alex Medina, Cholo Barretto, Ross Pesigan, Tessie Tomas, and the late Joy Viado.

Director Martin promised that while the movie stays true to the original story, creative license compelled them to change certain parts and the ending for effect. In doing so, both fans who have read the book and those who are learning the story for the first time, will have something to look forward to when watching the adaptation.

Ricky Davao

Looming controversy
When Smaller and Smaller Circles first came out, it quickly sparked discussions among several groups including the Catholic Church. As much as the story is about finding a serial murderer, the material also presents priests who seek justice for victims abused by other clergymen.

As a country comprised of more than 80-percent Catholics, other observers note that portraying holy men in this context will revive the criticisms the book suffered at the very beginning.

“We look up to certain people in certain ways and so when they do something wrong, we refuse to see it. But that’s the reason why we have these kinds of books and movies, because it talks about things that we don’t normally talk about,” Lucero defended.

On the other hand, Buencamino, a Catholic, offered a different perspective discovered from playing the hero Father Gus.

“It reinforces the fact that the Catholic Church consists of human beings who are also weak, who also commit mistakes and who also need prayers and help from the community in terms with dealing with problems,” he noted, adding that he believes the Church is now acting on reports of abuses by priests with Pope Francis as leader.

Finally, the movie is also touted by those who have seen its trailer as a statement against alleged extra judicial killings in the Philippines, but director Martin diffused this.

Carla Humphries

“First, this has no political statement because we have to remember that the book is set in 1997. Also, the movie is not as black and white as it looks. It’s not just a single issue being tackled here. I think of the things the movie would really want to discuss, ‘digging deeper’ would be on top. We want to convey that people really have to look closer at situations because what they see on the surface is never all that it is,” the director ended.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is Graded A by the Cinema Evaluation Board. It opens in cinemas nationwide on December 6.

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