Raya Martin’s first mainstream film is a technical triumph.
It’s a little difficult to separate Raya Martin’s new film, Smaller and Smaller Circles, from reality. It’s a fictional murder thriller set in 1997, but what’s most unnerving is that this story could very well be one of the many horrific tales we hear today. Immersing yourself into its world is so much easier, because, well, it’s so believable.
Smaller and Smaller Circles follows two Jesuit priests, Father Augusto Saenz and Father Jerome Lucero, who are investigating a string of teenage murders in Payatas. The film has a straightforward plot, as it is in the book (the eponymous novel by F.H. Batacan, from which the film is based), but it delivers so much more than a story.
Here’s the setup: ’90s-era Toyota Corollas, landline phones, and whirring desktop PCs that sing to the tune of dial-up. For those who grew up right before the new millennium, the film’s world will seem distantly familiar, like that scent that reminds you of a very particular childhood memory, or like the 5 p.m. sun that tints everything like rose-colored glasses. It’s these details that transport you to the world of Smaller and Smaller Circles.
But that nostalgia washes off abruptly the moment you see the pile of garbage of Smokey Mountain, or when (spoiler alert) the camera lands on the skinless face of a boy who’s been robbed of his heart and genitals. And then it snaps you right back into reality.
But it’s the little things you notice in the plot that really make you think, and in between the lines lie the similarities between 1997 and 2017: teenage boys are still getting killed, the police are still largely inefficient, and people still live beside mountains of garbage. It’s those very period-specific elements that make you go, “Sh*t, this was supposed to be 20 years ago.” It makes you wonder why there hasn’t been any progress in two decades.
The film took about a year to complete, and that’s because Raya and his crew paid very close attention to the way it was made. “I really wanted the film to feel as if it’s on par with the quality of Hollywood,” he explained in our interview last October. “The cinematography is amazing, the set is amazing. We really aspired to make something quite special.” And he’s right: they’ve achieved what they set out to do and then some.
If you read the book, the entire thing is written in English, which is one of the reasons they were very keen on the details. You process the story with a different perspective because of the language it’s presented in. It’s a completely different feeling — like visiting your own country in the eyes of a foreigner. The film, on the other hand, utilizes both English and Filipino, but still achieves the same effect with its treatment. It delivers a similar experience to Metro Manila (2013) by British director Sean Ellis, or The Bourne Legacy (2012) that starred Jeremy Renner.
It’s also this quality of seeming “international” that makes the film so timely. Barely 10 days after the film is released, Star Wars: The Last Jedi will premiere in the Philippines, and the MMFF takes over right after that. Local films need more than just a good story to be able to make a stand against commercial behemoths, a certain finesse that enables the audience to focus on what the story is really about, and how it all fits into the climate of today.
And that is the point that really drives it home: the story of Smaller and Smaller Circles is not overtly political, no — but everything else about it is. Its packaging, technicality, timing — these are all things that are picked on by local audiences that potentially distract from its directive, and these are things that Smaller delivers flawlessly. And for all of those, it wants just one thing in return: for you to look closer.