Smaller and Smaller Circles: The reflection of the times

Susan Claire Agbayani
Smaller and Smaller Circles: The reflection of the times
Sid Lucero, Bembol Roco, and Nonie Buencamino lead the cast of Raya Martin's movie, based on the book by F.H. Batacan

MANILA, Philippines – One after another, bodies of prepubescent boys filled with maggots turn up amid trash in the Payatas dump site. The horrific sight young trash pickers, police men and journalists find upon discovery of the bodies, is the absence of 3 parts: genitals, hearts, and faces.

Who is behind all these – literally, heartless – murders? Are they the handiwork of just one person? Is the perpetrator of the crime a drug addict, or is simply crazy?

This is what Smaller and Smaller Circles, the movie based on FH Batacan’s book of the same title, is about.

In the movie – which will have a theatrical run starting on Wednesday, December 6 – National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Director Francisco Lastimosa (Bembol Roco) seeks the help of his friend, Jesuit priest and forensic anthropologist Fr. Gus Saenz, S.J. (Nonie Buencamino) in solving the puzzle involving a serial killer on the loose. Fr. Saenz in turn seeks the help of psychologist-priest Fr. Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero), S.J. in solving the crime. 

Actor Bembol Roco plays Director Francisco Lastimosa

A former student of Fr. Gus’, French-speaking Joanna Bonifacio (Carla Humphries) unwittingly helps the tandem as she conducts her own investigation through her work as a broadcast journalist.


The Book 

Retired University of the Philippines Wika at Panitikan professor Ruby Alcantara noted how relevant the book (and movie ) are, since we have learned of late of the summary execution of one too many prepubescent boys. Not that the movie is about extra-judicial killings per se; but it is relevant to what is happening around us. 

Alcantara had just finished reading the late Aries Rufo’s Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics, and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church when she read Smaller and Smaller Circles. Altar… “shows a Church that is cloaked in secrecy. It keeps the wrongdoing of its bishops and priests – in sexual misconduct and financial mismanagement – within its confines and lets them get away, unpunished,” according to a summary from

Fr. Gus Saenz, S.J. (Nonie Buencamino) and Fr. Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero) try to solve the  mysterious killings of children

If there’s anything that people who have read the SASC book agree on, it is that it is “hard to put down,” as Mony Romana, Program Head of the Marketing Program of MINT College – and fan of crime procedural dramas like CSI – said. Teacher and filmmaker Robin Comandante agreed, adding, “Hindi mo bibitawan.” (You can’t let it go.)

During a press conference, SASC director Raya Martin revealed “Malaki ang fan base nung book. (The book has a huge fan base.) More than 10 years ago, they started to teach it in school, and more and more schools are teaching the new book that was published (by Soho Press) in New York.” 

De La Salle University professor Tanya Sevilla-Simon said that “I require my students to read it for HumaLit as a final book analysis, usually as a small group discussion.” HumaLit is an introduction to literature course.

The first version of the book – published by UP Press in 2002 won the Philippine National Book Award, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award, and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award.




From Book to Film

Carla Humphries as Joanna Bonifacio, a journalist helping the priest solve the children's murder

Three people behind the production of the film read different versions of the book, either the slimmer edition issued in 2002, which was read by Martin; or the meatier, more substantial version issued in 2015, which was what producer and co-writer Ria Limjap read. 

Either way, all of them – independent of one another – exclaimed, “This should be made into a film.”

Co-producer and co-writer Moira Lang had known Batacan since they became friends in Singapore in the 1990s, so it wasn’t difficult for the group to ask Batacan’s permission to adapt the book into film. Martin and Limjap went all the way to New York to negotiate the rights to the film with Soho, and they got it in a jiffy.

“Yes, we’ve been chatting,” said Martin of Batacan. Incidentally, Martin’s older brother Mayo and Batacan work in the same media company in Singapore.

How did Batacan feel about her masterpiece being adapted into the silver screen?

“It hasn’t sunk in fully yet – even after more than a year –  even now that we’re coming so close to the film’s release. There’s a persistent sense of the book having a life and a direction of its own, like water carving its path through rock and earth. I’ve been really fortunate that my work has been championed and embraced by so many generous, talented people,” FH Batacan said during an interview with Rappler via Facebook Messenger. 

In an interview with Limjap prior to a private screening of the film at Columbia Pictures Screening Room at Shang Edsa Plaza mall, she shared, “Raya made an outline based on the novel, which he bounced to me and Moira. It took about 2 months I think; maybe longer. We were constantly revising dialogue. The actors had their own input. The writing was a very organic process for us.” 

“I visited the set several times while I was on holiday last year,” Batacan shared. “I think I spent most of my time looking dazed, with my mouth open! The work they were doing was pretty amazing, and everyone – from the director to the producers, to the actors and all the technical and logistical staff – really put a lot of heart and sweat into the film. You can see all of that right there on the screen: so much dedication to and belief in the story that they wanted to tell. It was humbling.”


The Cast

“The first thing we came up with was casting,” said Martin. Humphries, Lucero and Buencamino were handpicked for their respective roles.

During the Q & A portion of the press conferenceHumphries was asked how she felt at being the “alter ego of Felisa Batacan in this story,” and she replied. “The character of Joana is loosely based on FH Batacan. I had a chance to meet her when she visited the set in Ateneo. Nakakakaba (nerve-wracking) to portray someone that’s based on a real person, especially if it’s the character of the writer. She gave her full trust to the team and the actors. She was very encouraging.”

Actor Nonie Buencamino has been schooled in Ateneo during his primary years  

“Syempre uso yung damsel in distress na hinihintay yung savior n’ya. (Of course, being a damsel in distress waiting for her savior is a popular role.) Sobrang excited ako (I’m very excited) to play a character who is intelligent, can fight not only for herself, but also for people who can’t fight for themselves. And I think that’s what real journalism is, right?” Humphries said of her role.

Interestingly, Nonie Buencamino, who portrays the role of main protagonist Fr. Saenz, was himself schooled in the Jesuit institution where the book and film are set. (Jesuit Communications assisted the team with 3 or 4 locations on campus). He studied from Grades 1-6, and again from first year to third year college at the Ateneo de Manila University.

This Jesuit education was briefly interrupted by schooling at PAREF Southridge School from Grades 7 to 4th year high school (his father is an Opus Dei numerary), he said during an exclusive interview at Columbia.

He often attended mass at Mary the Queen Parish near Xavier School, and had priest- professor friends who had other specializations, too, like a psychologist and a medical doctor who somewhat became his inspirations for his role.

Buencamino, who himself lost a child fairly recently had difficulty replying to questions from other characters of the film whenever they would ask him (as Fr. Saenz): “Why is God like that? Why did he allow this to happen to my child?” He said it’s difficult to answer, and is something that not even the most intelligent priest could easily respond to.

“For me, it really reinforces the fact about the Catholic Church which consists of human beings: people who are also weak, who also commit mistakes, who also need prayers, who also need the help of the community in dealing with their problems. It brings it out in the open. And nowadays – I’d like to believe – this issue of abuse is being addressed by the new leader Pope Francis, and is not being swept under the rug.”

He added, “The fact that my character as a priest is pursuing people in the clergy who are committing those abuses and trying to rectify (them)… There’s a struggle within the church to correct (them). It makes some respect the Catholic Church and clergy even more because they’re human and trying their best to own up, and correct the mistakes they made.”

As for working with other actors, Buencamino says, “It was wonderful to work with Sid Lucero because everything seems easy with him. Kahit na sinasabi n’yang ninenerbiyos s’ya, ang dating pa rin n’ya ay very organic, natural, spontaneous. (Even if he kept saying that he was nervous, his portrayal is very organic, natural, spontaneous.) It’s always a blessing for  an actor to be working with an actor who’s very giving, and is on a similar wavelength, as far as the scene is concerned,” he said during the presscon.

It’s very visual, character-driven and accessible, timely and relevant. I want the audience to be engaged in the film. I’m interested in how the audience will react to it,” Martin said during an exclusive interview at Columbia.

Martin has done more than 10 films: documentaries, experimental films, most of them have been shown abroad. Smaller and Smaller Circles is the most narrative” he said. He worked with Buencamino in How to Disappear Completely; and with Lucero in Independencia; they even went to the Cannes Film Festival together for it.

The director didn’t know Humphries from Eve, but was very impressed with her performances and her ability to switch from a very serious dramatic role in Joyce Bernal’s 10,000 Hours, to a comedy like Beki Camp. Sabi ko ‘Sino ang babaeng ‘to? Tapos, ‘nung nakilala ko, baliw pala s’ya,” he chuckled. ( I said, who is this woman? And then, when I met her, she turned out to be crazy!)

“It was such an honor and privilege for me as a director to work with all these people, seeing how they’re all different in terms of acting styles and approaches and also to see them play around with one another. It’s an acting playground,” Martin said. 

Also present during the presscon were TBA Studios Executive Producers Fernando Ortigas and EA Rocha, and President Vincent Nebrida.

The Film 

“When I was collaborating with Ria for the screenplay, we made sure that we were truly faithful to the book because of its huge fan base. We didn’t want to disappoint all of the lovers of the book. The second half (of the film) –  especially the ending – is a surprise. It’s so different from the book. There’s something for everyone. We want people who haven’t read the book (but who will watch the movie) to  pick up the book and also be as excited to discover the story,” Martin said. “Pareho s’ya at magkaiba s’ya at the same time, he added. (They’re the same and and at the same time, different.) 

Movie scribes who went to the presscon pointed out that the film is up against rom coms which are in vogue these days.

Smaller and Smaller Circles will be screened (hopefully for 3 weeks) from December 6 onwards, a week before Star Wars, and 3 weeks before the Metro Manila Film Fest, to give people enough time to go out and watch the movie. Take note that it is crucial for people to watch on Day 1 itself! For block screenings, contact the theater of your choice, Limjap advised.

“Why are we so invested in stories that are not ours? I want to bring the audience back. I want them to come to the theater and relate what’s happening in the film to what we see and hear around us,” Martin concluded.

He stressed the importance of “looking closer;” as there is more to things than meet the eye, and we have to be more discerning of what’s happening in our midst.

Smaller and Smaller Circles also stars Ricky Davao, Christopher de Leon, Raffy Tejada, Junjun Quintana, Gladys Reyes, TJ Trinidad, Alex Medina, and Cholo Barretto. It is R13, and was Graded A by the Cinema Evaluation Board. –

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