Most mysteries start with a murder.
This one begins with a confession. In italicized text, F. H. Batacan kicks off her Palanca- and National Book Award-winning novel Smaller and Smaller Circles inside the mind of an initially unknown speaker, nervous and paranoid. This early on, it becomes clear that Batacan isn’t simply interested in giving readers a puzzle to solve. In fact, on page one, she already hands us the key piece: she allows us to meet the murderer.
From then on, contrary to its title, the novel branches outward, addressing aspects of Filipino society ranging from the lack of funding for certain institutions to the Catholic Church’s questionable position of power in the Philippines. So, unfortunately, this story—two Jesuit priests assisting in the investigation of what they believe to be a string of serial killings—is now perhaps a little reductively regarded as the Philippines’s first crime novel. Raya Martin, the director of the novel’s feature film adaptation to be released in December, considers the book to be less about particular characters or incidents and more about systemic oppression. “We’ve always been fighting the same fight,” Martin explains. “In a way, this story forces us to contemplate this, and how we really need to stop and think about where we are right now and what we can do—whether it’s in school, politics, the arts, or wherever—to really think about where we’re coming from and how we’re going to play our role.”
With Smaller and Smaller Circles, director Raya Martin marks his first major foray into more straightforward narrative filmmaking.
Martin’s role for now is to enter personally uncharted territory: this isn’t just his first time translating a work of literature into a cinematic language (while still hoping to capture all of the book’s layers), it’s also the director’s first narrative feature in a prolific career comprised of documentaries and more avant-garde fare. Known for films such as Maicling Pelicula Nañg Ysañg Indio Nacional, Independencia, and How to Disappear Completely, Martin now finds himself taking responsibility over another artist’s world. And, as is the case with any film adaptation of a book, more cooks have to be brought into the kitchen. Helping Martin bring Batacan’s words onto the screen are writers and producers Ria Limjap and Moira Lang and production company TBA Studios, a conglomerate consisting of Tuko Film Productions, Inc., Buchi Boy Entertainment, and Artikulo Uno Productions.
And then there’s the cast. Ever since its original publication in 2002 as a novella from the University of the Philippines Press, Smaller and Smaller Circles has become many things to many people. Now, it’s taken on yet another identity: a melting pot of actors from all corners of the industry and beyond. There are veterans here, like Christopher de Leon, Ricky Davao, and Raffy Tejada, and younger talents in the process of making their own distinct marks, like TJ Trinidad, Junjun Quintana, and Jess Mendoza—all of whom were handpicked by Martin and his team.
There were no auditions held for the main roles, meaning every actor was intentionally brought onboard for specific reasons. No matter their background or interpretation of the material, these actors were allowed to play to their strengths—turning Smaller and Smaller Circles into an unlikely but honest snapshot of the Philippines’s landscape of screen actors for 2017.
It becomes clear that it was important to Martin, at least during the casting process, that his actors be just as interesting and dynamic off-set as they are on.
Thankfully, a portrait such as this is still eclectic and reverent enough to include the industry’s local legends whose successes have paved the way for the rest of the ensemble’s careers. It’s a wonder that Bembol Roco, in particular—unmistakably the face of what many call the greatest Filipino film of all time, Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag—is still getting roles today, and in independent genre pictures, no less. “We really wanted Bembol because we’re playing with the idea that he is one of the best actors of Philippine cinema and he’s also an icon. But he’s also a very normal guy,” Martin says. “He’s not showbiz at all.”
In Smaller and Smaller Circles, Roco plays Director Lastimosa of the National Bureau of Investigation, a supporting role that Martin felt would benefit from the thespian’s stature. Roco himself, though, is soft-spoken, accommodating, and unaffected by his reputation. He says the character is just another role he considers equally as important as the rest of his filmography, which includes credits from Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and the Peter Weir-directed The Year of Living Dangerously. “I have no idea why they chose me. I guess I may look the part,” he laughs. “I consider myself a dramatic actor. That’s what I am, that’s who I believe I am, that’s what I’ve done for the past 43 years.”
Meanwhile, as Roco continues to navigate familiar territory, Carla Humphries—the only woman in the film’s main cast—has just reoriented herself. “Who am I to be amongst such wonderful and well-respected actors?” she asks, still somewhat incredulous that her name gets to be on the same call sheet as her co-stars’. “It’s an honor to be amongst them—and also Raya, in his own right, has accomplished so much—so it was exciting to reenter the industry with something this substantial.” She plays news reporter Joanna Bonifacio, a character loosely based on Batacan herself, and one of the key people involved in solving these serial murders of children.
For Humphries, Smaller and Smaller Circles is a reset button, her rebuttal to her own self-doubts about getting back into show business after spending a couple of years soul-searching in France. “I was thinking that maybe my time had passed, that I hadn’t reached that certain peak,” she remembers. “I was maturing and reevaluating my life and thinking, ‘Is this for me or not?’” Luckily, while Humphries wasn’t certain her earlier attempts had been noticed, Martin found himself impressed by her in two vastly different projects: the Wenn Deramas comedy Bekikang: Ang Nanay Kong Beki, and the Joyce Bernal action film 10,000 Hours. “[I discovered] her in those extremes,” Martin recalls, “’yung ability niya to go from one end of the spectrum to the other easily, and then meeting her and seeing how she’s also so different in real life, like she has a world of her own.”
It becomes clear that it was important to Martin, at least during the casting process, that his actors be just as interesting and dynamic off-set as they are on. “I think casting is putting together different kinds of energies,” he states. “It’s a puzzle na, okay, this person brings in this type of friction on set, so is it good or bad to the scene or to the story? Then we decide.” Humphries shares her director’s sentiment, anchoring herself on something more akin to spirituality as she continues to fine-tune her craft. “You really learn from an actor just by being in a scene with them, just by observing and having their energy in their presence during a scene,” she says. “It’s amazing. I don’t think any school could teach that kind of applied education. I think we all bring our own energies, and I think part of being with such a strong cast is to hold your ground.”
As Humphries was preparing to be reintroduced to Philippine cinema, the film’s two main stars—Nonie Buencamino, who plays forensic anthropologist Father Gus Saenz, and Sid Lucero, who plays psychologist Father Jerome Lucero—found themselves somewhat underprepared for the very roles they were curiously handpicked for. “I’m not Father Gus from the novel,” the theater-trained Buencamino admits. “In the novel, he’s a tall guy. Long hair, white hair, medyo sloppy, so they took some license with it.” On the other hand, Lucero, known most recently for intense roles in films like Apocalypse Child and Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, felt challenged by the prospect of playing a character much less confrontational than his previous roles. “I’m really makulit, so it feels like it’s more of an effort when I control myself and inhibit reactions,” he says, before adding, “but I’d say [Father Jerome] is pretty intense, too. Just not explosive.”
Having previously worked with both lead actors, Martin was nevertheless confident in choosing the two for reasons beyond physical requirements and typecasting. “They’re special collaborators to me,” Martin beams. “There’s this closeness of understanding of consciousness. It’s not just their craft. It’s more of how they think, how their presence is felt on set and in the story. And they’re perfect together; one exists because of the other.”
The connection Martin sees between them is unclear, at first, until you speak with the two actors individually. “It was a personal journey for me, doing the film,” Lucero muses. “Not as Father Lucero, but as Sid Lucero.” Martin describes him as the more emotional of the leads, his performance driven strongest by empathy and feeling—traits Lucero carries with him even beyond the movie. “It taught me a lot about myself, because of the work environment that I put myself in. I was doing two shows, I was snapping at friends, I was coming to work not ready,” he reveals. “I learned a lot about myself in terms of what I can and cannot do.” Lucero is quick to clarify that the Smaller and Smaller Circles set, to him, was home; he just wishes he hadn’t let other projects keep him from enjoying his time there.
This comes in sharp contrast to Buencamino, who, when asked about his big takeaway from the filming experience, chuckles and replies, “The French language is very hard. It’s so difficult that I should have practiced more.” Then, his tone turns a bit more serious. “It was a wake-up call for me to learn more, study more, practice more,” he continues. “I had time to get a script, but I should have practiced more with the French”—and you realize he wasn’t joking. It makes sense, given that Buencamino is the more evidently technical of the film’s two leads; he generously cites acting gurus Konstantin Stanislavski, Sanford Meisner, and Stella Adler, while underlining the importance of constantly returning to the fundamentals, even if it means attending workshops led by far younger actors. For him, acting is humility.
With such a varied mix of styles on one set, one can only imagine the heavy lifting on Martin’s part to command the best kinds of performances out of each member of the ensemble. But all of the actors agree that he wasn’t hands-on with them at all. “Raya I find to be a very subtle director,” Roco says. “As actors, we are given the freedom to express ourselves with our own ideas and ways of interpreting the character.” Humphries adds, “He’s very effortless. He’s not in-your-face about the character. There’s that certain trust that he gives you, and he’s not a dictator.”
“Ang gift niya is how to bring it out of you,” Buencamino chips in. “He’s very soft, very subtle. Pero magaling siyang manood.” Lucero echoes this, likening his direction to acting blindfolded. “It’s a more cerebral way of attacking it,” he says. So the value of Martin’s careful, handpicked casting process has paid off: arguably the best piece of direction he gave his actors for this project was selecting them in the first place. Without having to give meticulous, irritating instructions, Martin affirms their natural talents from the get-go, assuring them that they’ve already brought to the table exactly what the film needs. And with that, the cast and crew seem to have everything lined up toward one unified vision.
Smaller and Smaller Circles will never be the film that everyone wants it to be. Once it is released into the world, the filmmakers will lose control of it.
The problem now is that, since its publication in 2002, Smaller and Smaller Circles has become many things to many people. And with the film adaptation’s December release, the story is only destined to become even more things for an even wider audience. Amid excited comments on the trailers online are the occasional (if not altogether rare) grumbles that yet another Filipino film is attempting to be topical, or lamentations about the state of the country today, which neither Martin, nor Batacan herself, could have predicted would become the norm. There is no telling what kind of response the film will get upon its release.
To be clear, none of the actors in the ensemble thought about Smaller and Smaller Circles’ potential impact while putting it together. Only after shooting wrapped a year ago did the cast begin to realize that what they had made could be even more special than they initially imagined. Humphries is optimistic: “It resonates with other problems we have in our culture, like how a life is so cheap in the Philippines, how people kind of sweep a lot of things under the rug. I’d be proud to show this to anyone, anywhere around the world.”
Lucero, on the other hand, is a little more tentative about celebrating the film’s potential positive impact. “We’re really blind, Filipinos,” he sighs. “We’re young as a society, we don’t know what’s happening, we don’t know what’s good for us. [The film] is a really nice, powerful piece, but I don’t think the ones who need to hear it are mature enough to understand what’s going on. I think we’re slowly getting there. Mabagal lang.”
“They might not like my statement,” Buencamino warns before continuing. “‘Wag niyo na i-connect. The issue [in the film] is serial killing of children. It’s not EJK (extrajudicial killings). I think, more than anything, if they watch the movie, the overriding thing is mental health. We should be aware of people [with mental health issues] and be compassionate with them, and try to fix their situation or help them.”
Among the various interpretations and messages people will choose to see when they finally get to watch the movie, the reality that reveals itself is this: that Smaller and Smaller Circles will never be the film that everyone needs or wants it to be. With any piece of art, once it is released into the world, the filmmakers will lose control of it—no matter how carefully the film was conceived, casted, and crafted. At the end of the day, despite the best efforts of Martin, Limjap, Lang, TBA, and the entire cast, a work of art will always be completed by the audience. And it will be up to the audience to decide what the film means for them, if anything at all.
“The more that you just let it flow, then that’s when you start seeing all these things that can be beautiful, that can be possible.” – Raya Martin
But Martin reassures us in the face of all this uncertainty. “Doing this movie made me realize, up to a certain point, that you can create your own world,” he states. “And you can go along as you shoot it. But at the end of the day, the important part is where magic comes in.” He differentiates “magic” from chance, but can’t quite find the words to articulate what he means. He concedes and concludes by saying, “The more that you just let it flow, then that’s when you start seeing all these things that can be beautiful, that can be possible.” Ominous, peculiar words, especially for a film about two priests tracking down a serial killer. But little else seems capable of being apt to describe what they’ve been able to accomplish—from the confident casting process, to the balancing of energy within the ensemble, to the minor miracle of even getting the film made. So for lack of a better word, magic it is.
This feature was originally published in The Cinema Issue of Rogue, November 2017.
Makeup and Grooming by Rachel Mañalac
Sittings by Philbert Dy and Andrew Panopio