Friday, March 01, 2019

Smaller and Smaller Circles: Jesuits Investigate

Father Augusto Saenz has the crime fighting talent of Father Brown and the social conscience of Father Greeley, but alas, neither is particularly good for his career as a Jesuit. Fortunately, he works for a higher power. Saenz and his colleague, Father Jerome Lucero, are more than willing to consult with the police, but they are not so good at navigating the politics that go with civil service in Raya Martin’s Smaller and Smaller Circles, which opens today in Los Angeles.

Father Saenz is one of the few priests who has his own crime lab, but his righteous compulsion to speak out against predatory priests will jeopardize its continued funding. Frankly, it was Saenz who deduced there was a serial killer loose in the first place, so it makes sense for him to join the investigation. However, the corrupt prosecutor is not thrilled having him on board.

It is clear an unknown perp has been murdering young boys from Payatas, one of Metro Manila’s most distressed neighborhoods, at odd intervals. The strange timing of the killings might hold an important clue. Unfortunately, Father Saenz is the only one smart enough to figure it out, but he will be pulled of the case due to politics.

We had a genuinely hostile reaction to Martin's disturbingly cruel How to Disappear Completely, but fortunately he redeems himself with the much more accessible and humanistic Circles. Its general plotline is not wildly original, but it still functions quite effectively as a procedural. However, the real strength of the film is its characterization. Father Saenz in particular is quite a compelling figure, especially with respects to his mentoring relationships with Father Lucero and a foreign journalist. The two priests also relate to their Catholic faith and the Church's policies in ways that are critical and complicated, without indulging in cheap shots or sock-puppetry.

Veteran actor Nonie Buencamino is terrific as Saenz. He is intensely driven and a bit like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock in terms of his awkward social graces, but Buencamino also fully conveys his forgiveness and charity. Sid Lucero nicely plays against type as the studious (and celibate) Father Lucero, while Raffy Tejada is flamboyantly slimy as Atty. Arcinas.

Martin maintains a tight, tense noir vibe, heightened by J.A. Tadena’s eerie cinematography. His pacing is deliberate, but never slack or sluggish. All in all, it is a distinctively brooding thriller. Recommended for fans of dark and morally complex serial killer films, Smaller and Smaller Circles (admittedly not a great title) opens today (3/1) in Los Angeles, at the Laemmle Glendale.