Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Smaller and Smaller Circles

Director Raya Martin

SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES                 B+                  
Philippines  (117 mi)  2017  d:  Raya Martin

Time and forgetfulness are the allies of abusers.                    
―Father Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero)

Adapted from F.H. Batacan’s award winning novel originally published in 1999, though expanded considerably in a 2015 update that doubles the length from 155 pages to 355, its influence is considered groundbreaking, the first Western-style crime novel in the Philippines, though it’s entrenched with a cultural identity unique to the Philippines, in this case an intersection of Catholicism with forensic police procedures, both guided by identical principles of extracting a confession.  Set in Payatas in 1997, prior to an age of cellphones or highspeed Internet, the town is known for a massive landfill, including a poverty-stricken slum culture of malnourished preteen boys that distribute low-end waste products sorted out from the trash, with many living off the rotting food products discovered there, suggesting an unseen wealthy upper class that is completely oblivious.  From the outset, we hear an eerie narration from an unidentified source, while at the same time a mutilated body of a young boy is found dumped in the landfill.  The central characters of the film are two Jesuit priests, Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) and Father Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero), where the familiar ease with one another is exemplary, with Saenz a renowned international expert in forensics, having formerly taught in Paris, now working independently from the police, where the two are diligently examining a naked corpse, discovering an initial blow to the head, preventing the victim from fighting back, and then their faces, hearts and genitals are removed with surgical precision, everything that makes them human, and then dumped like garbage.  In no time we’ve discovered multiple victims, where the unrecognizable narrative voice may be that of the killer speaking to us from what appears to be his confession or his disturbing inner conscience.  This sense of disorientation adds to an overwhelming feeling of dread, a dark and often terrifying journey into the void of the unknown, as the killer remains out of reach, probably living among them, seemingly untouchable, yet the combined powers of the Church and State can only muster feeble efforts in response, actually caught in an antagonistic relationship with each other, distrusting each other’s efforts, where one of the police detectives offers his cynical response to Saenz, “You’ve been watching too many foreign movies, Father Saenz.  We all know there are no serial killers in the Philippines.”  The incredulous stupidity of this thought hangs over the film like a misguided prophecy, where digging one’s way out of the abyss becomes the narrative arc of the film.

Overly grim, dark and moody, sort of a cross between David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) and Bong Joon-ho’s MEMORIES OF A MURDER (2003), the first half of the film follows a recognizable path, identifying a series of murders, introducing the characters involved who follow the clues, making small steps of discovery, encountering difficulties, adding one piece at a time until a recognizable pattern comes into view, where it’s important to remember this is all happening prior to any advanced CSI-style technology.  Adding to the cultural malaise is deeply rooted institutional corruption, where the Jesuit priests can more easily forgive the misguided acts of a heinous murderer, offering a certain amount of sympathy for what drives him to do what he does, but they show absolute disgust and disdain for abuse of authoritative power, whether it be Church higher-ups that steal from the coffers or politicians that do the same.  All pledging to serve the poor while helping themselves instead, engaged in elaborate cover ups to deceive the public, presenting a benevolent public image while behind the scenes one finds self-serving motives of avarice and greed, including molesting priests that the Church simply keeps moving to different locations to avoid detection, avoiding all moral responsibility.  The uncontrolled violence exhibited by the serial killer is a profound reminder of the unabated sexual abuse inflicted by the Church, in each case targeting innocent children.  Father Saenz has had his own run-ins with hierarchal Church authorities, specifically one offending Cardinal, to the point where Father Lucero finds it a futile exercise, but Saenz insists on following his ethical obligations, wherever that may lead him.  In this sense, the film is a universal story transferrable anywhere around the world, as we’re all plagued by sinister acts from powerful leaders who are little more than pretenders, practiced in the art of deception, failing all tests of moral character.  Intrigued by the mysteriousness of Catholic priests leading a police investigation, this film delves into its own murky waters, offering a religious take on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where a probing scientific method mixes with theological Catholic compassion in equal measure, taking a sharp turn from the cynical film noir territory of Raymond Chandler, exploring instead the depths of a disturbed and depraved, seemingly irredeemable human conscience that feeds on little children, that exorcises his own inner demons by carrying out such monstrous acts.  Yet at the same time, when finally coming face to face with the killer, unlike the police, a priest’s first response is to forgive him.  The spiritual realm explored by this film is as dark and shadowy as the visual production design shown onscreen, much of it shot in the dark, or in a pelting rain, using flashlights as lone beams of light.  The search for redemption is elusively ambiguous, more a goal than an end in itself, as it’s mostly a process, taking one step at a time in the right direction, offering ideas and strategies instead of final answers, bolstered by building a strong moral foundation.

Considering the gruesome nature of the genre subject matter, the skillful way the director handles it would be described as neo-noir, as it veers off into its own direction, not really a whodunit, but an exploration of the larger social ramifications, using the haunting sound of a children’s chorus singing liturgical music as a recurring theme, creating a profound effect, somber and reflective, plunging the depths of the soul, like washing away the sins.  The ineptitude of the local police authorities reveals itself when they hastily make an arrest, apparently to save face in the community, offering a perception of safety when in reality there is none.  Even the Church attempts to stifle the influence of the rogue priests, depleting their funding, hoping to silence them and thwart their efforts.   But when the murders continue and the authorities have no answers, only the untainted reputation of the priests seems to be able to guide them out of this moral crevasse, like spiritual mercenaries offering a front line of defense against a powerful near satanic adversary.  Written and filmed prior to the rise of such detestable authority figures as American and Philippine Presidents Trump and Duterte, both unleashing much of their own corrupt dictatorial power against their own citizens, protecting a status quo of self-interest and exploitation, where the needs of the weak are literally steamrolled by the interests of the rich, creating a disposable underclass, yet this film is all the more remarkable for accurately predicting the current alignment of the stars where absolute power corrupts, leaving a devastation in its wake.  Here, in response to the depravity of the crimes, a despondent family member asks, “Is God a Sadist?”  To which Father Saenz replies, “No, but man often is.”  One should note, the Spanish colonization of the Philippines lasted over 300 years, with few Spaniards ever venturing there (which accounts for why Spanish is considered an elitist language in the Philippines), leaving long-lasting effects that are still being sorted out.  While Catholicism has spread to more than 80% of the residents, in some Philippine villages the priest and the mayor may be the only white residents, creating a perception of power by race or skin color, a condition that remains toxic in such a racially diverse country.  In the book and the film, the priests are described as mestizos, or tisoys, mixed race Filipinos with foreign ancestry, whose Western attributes include not only their education but their ability to speak English, which is spoken throughout the film right alongside dialogue spoken in Tagalog, so two languages merge as one (Taglish), creating a mixed culture of the future, where the uncompromising search for answers by the priests is a parallel for the ever evolving search for a Filipino identity.   

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