The cinema was unusually packed for a last full show and it’s not even the Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Everyone is dead silent, anticipating what “Smaller and Smaller Circles” – which is already in its final stretch of screenings despite opening just a week ago – has to say. Only a few cinemas will retain the movie for another week.
The story, based on F.H. Batacan’s award-winning crime novel of the same name, follows the murder and evisceration of young boys in 1990s Manila, where their bodies – face peeled off, heart and genitals removed – are dumped in the garbage and poverty-stricken slums of Payatas. Jesuit priests Father Gus Saenz, a forensic anthropologist and Father Jerome Lucero, a clinical psychologist, comes in to solve the killings.
The gripping, Raya Martin-directed film, however, delved not much on the who but the why, proving itself to be a rare serial killer flick in a local setting and spreading terror in the Payatas landfill and through the big screen. It utilized (successfully, at that) an initially unidentified, mysterious murderer and the snowball of events from his killings to talk about Philippine society as a whole, as well as the problems it cannot seem to escape. While it supposedly happened almost two decades ago, the issues included in the film look and feel familiar. From poverty, incompetence in the government, denial of access to basic healthcare services, corruption and child sexual abuse in the church, the list goes on. In fact, the first 30 minutes is a standard and saturated introduction of pre-existing troubles in the country.
The novel adaptation’s plot is driven heavily by a cynical cause and its chilling effect, and it essentially showed the dangers of the continuing culture of silence surrounding sexual abuse. The same silence, because of fear or indifference, tolerated the horrible act and worsened the pain by tenfold. The killer, a smart and timid dentistry graduate named Alex who made himself known late in the movie, was sexually violated repeatedly by his P.E. teacher. While his parents, friends, classmates and possibly the school administration knew, no one said or did anything. Despite his sinister crime, he was undeniably as much of a victim himself. Citing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1968 speech reflecting upon the civil rights movement, Alex remembered not the words (or actions) of the predator, but the silence of his loved ones.
Silence cost the lives of seven innocent, young boys. It was the killer’s way of numbing the immense pain, by “dehumanizing” and “depersonalizing” the reflection of who he was as a sexual abuse victim, as Saenz put it.
While the whole film boasts impressive cinematography, attention to detail and music that pulls in the audience (think Cannes Film Festival-style mystery movies), there was no need to describe how Alex was sexually-abused. What truly mattered was the damage it had done.
Smaller and Smaller Circles is not just breaking the silence by showing the problem but ultimately making the viewers realize how these issues are in fact already living in our midst, yet we repeatedly refuse to recognize it, confront it and much less do something about it like the heroic Father Gus does. As is with other cases of sexual abuse, everyone around Alex wished they could help but they did not. He was as good as dead – as he was found with self-inflicted stab wounds by the end of the film – when everyone chose to invalidate what happened to him.
Imagine if these spaces of silence were filled, recognized, named and treated not as a source of shame but as an opportunity to correct the wrong, lives could have been saved. Alex could have helped more patients, adults and kids alike. Living condition could have been better even for the poorest.
As the closing cue appeared, repeating the movie’s title in plain white text against a blank black canvas, cheers and applause erupted. Everyone stayed seated even when the credits already started rolling, but they were definitely worth staying for, worth recognizing for the team that brought a story that needed urgent telling. Most importantly, it was a movie that made as much necessary noise – if not more – than giant movie franchises.