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Literature / Smaller & Smaller Circles

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Smaller and Smaller Circles is a Filipino crime novel by journalist and media worker F. H. Batacan. Set in metropolitan Manila in the summer of 1997, it follows the adventures of a pair of Jesuit priests who moonlight as Amateur Sleuths and are sometimes asked to solve murders. The novel won the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English Novel in 1999 and was first published in novella form in 2002.

Young boys from the slums have been turning up dead in Payatas, the largest sanitary landfill in Metro Manila. Most of them have been gruesomely murdered and eviscerated in creepily consistent fashion. But because Police Are Useless, the victims are nobodies, and the government places little priority on solving urban crime (or indeed on anything other than filling its higher-ups' pockets), nobody seems to notice or care that this is possibly the work of a Serial Killer... until a pair of Jesuit priests, Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero, are brought in on the case. Saenz, with his foreign training in forensic anthropology, and Lucero, with a background in clinical psychology, put their minds together to track down the suspect, all the while dodging Obstructive Bureaucrats within the National Bureau of Investigation and helped along on the outside by Intrepid Reporter Joanna Bonifacio.

While the main plot focuses on the investigation into the boys' murders, Smaller and Smaller Circles also uses the investigation to remark on the role played by the Philippine government — specifically, how skewed priorities, corruption and general government incompetence can retard practical solutions to social ills, including the investigation of violent crime.

In 2015, an expanded international edition of the novel came out, adding considerable backstories and several new characters, and a film adaptation debuted on 6 December 2017, produced by TBA Studios, the same outfit that made Heneral Luna and Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral. The film has a significant transmedia component, including a sort of social media game where users can pretend to chat with the Serial Killer on Facebook and get various answers. The producers also released a YouTube miniseries purporting to be a compilation of segments from Joanna Bonifacio's show, First Person, complete with era-appropriate scan lines.

Smaller and Smaller Circles contains examples of the following tropes:

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    In the novella 
  • Amateur Sleuth: Both priests. Fr. Saenz and Fr. Lucero are consulted by the government in murder cases due to their academic experience in forensics and the government's sore lack of in-house manpower, and despite being Jesuit priests.
  • Ambition Is Evil: A semi-sympathetic example in the backstory of Atty. Arcinas. He grew up in a poor family of nine children, hustled his way through law school, persevered enough to pass the bar after three tries, and slowly worked his way up the Philippine civil service. He isn't quite evil, however, but is more of a selfish, arrogant Punch-Clock Villain and Obstructive Bureaucrat. At least, until his change of heart.
  • Amoral Attorney: Atty. Benjamin "Ben" Arcinas, who prefers to chase the limelight with sensational cases involving high-profile victims. He almost callously dismisses the Payatas murders and even has a generic street urchin framed for them until the next murder surfaces and bites Arcinas in the ass, seriously jeopardizing his career.
    • Oddly enough, he's never shown doing any actual legal work, even as simple as drawing up legal documents; in fact, he plays more of a detective role, albeit a fairly incompetent and self-serving one. (Truth in Television, as Philippine lawyers are often appointed to various government posts, at times even to positions far beyond their strict area of legal expertise and often regardless of their actual administrative ability.)
  • Author Avatar: Joanna Bonifacio. The Real Life Batacan is also an investigative journalist by training.
  • Berserk Button:
  • Bilingual Bonus: Several of Joanna's phrases (in French, when speaking with Fr. Saenz) and thought processes (in Italian) are left untranslated. The 2015 edition re-releases them in English.
  • Break the Haughty: Arcinas after the latest murder puts him in his place and he gets a harsh reprimand from the NBI Director.
  • Celibate Hero: The priests, by definition. It's doubly hard for Sexy Priest Fr. Saenz, who is consistently hit on by younger women, and thus has to keep a tight leash on his own instincts.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Saenz' toothache, the victims' free dental records, as well as the shiny object Joanna notices in her crime scene footage — which turns out to be a dental instrument.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Councillor Cesar Mariano, who sponsors free dental checkups for street children. Fr. Saenz notices one of his vans advertising these dental services … and then later figures out that the murder victims, also street children, might have had dental records thanks to Mariano's program.
  • Cool Old Guy: Fr. Saenz, who wears his hair long ("rock star hair" according to Jerome), listens to rock music, and dresses very informally compared to the quieter and more conservative Jerome.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: Played with in the case of Atty. Arcinas. Instead of bribe money, he is more interested in personal fame and popularity, which is why he prefers investigating high-profile crimes, and will only haul his ass on a case if it will make him look heroic and competent in the public eye.
  • Cowboy Cop: Atty. Arcinas displays shades of this—most notably, he jumps the gun by arresting the wrong suspect, which gets him a severe reprimand from the NBI Director, who nearly threatens him with the NBI version of Turn in Your Badge (i.e. being fired or having his law practice revoked). He does try to get his kicks by suggesting a manhunt for the Serial Killer towards the end of the novel.
  • Collector of the Strange: Saenz keeps jars of various pickled biological specimens in his lab. Occasionally he will pick up one or another from its shelf and study it.
  • Creepy Souvenir: Saenz's jar collection still pales in contrast with Alex Carlos, who keeps his victims' organs in a freezer at home.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The murder victims, of course; they're found with their organs missing and their faces peeled off. And this was all done with dental instruments!
  • Cunning Linguist: Joanna, who speaks six languages: besides English and Tagalog, she knows French, German, Japanese, and Italian. What's more, she switches languages in her head depending on the situation—Japanese for heavy traffic, French for annoying people, German when she needs money … and Italian for, presumably, special cases—like discovering the Serial Killer's next victim.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The priests often snark in each other's company. Joanna is also a serial offender.
  • The Dandy: Atty. Arcinas. He spends an inordinate amount of time fussing over his appearance—he puts on foundation makeup, and his hair is carefully coiffed and dyed a vivid red. In childhood he took odd jobs to save up money for a manicure at thirteen.
  • Depraved Dentist: Alex Carlos, the Serial Killer, who pries his victims' faces off with his own dental tools. It's worse because he also works in a mobile clinic treating the same people for free.
  • Death of a Child: The Serial Killer's victims are poverty-stricken boys from Payatas.
  • Dumb Muscle: The police and the NBI rank-and-file could count as this on an institutional scale. They may have the authority to arrest, detain and kill suspected criminals, but they're not very strategic in their thinking, and if not for the Director's foresight to call on outside expertise in the form of the priests, their collective power would still prove useless against a smart Serial Killer, at least partly because both agencies can't be bothered to solve what they perceive to be non-essential, "nobody cases" (i.e., the victims were nobodies).
  • Empty Fridge, Empty Life: Alex Carlos is a quiet loner, and his fridge contains nothing but an old salad, a peanut butter jar, and a few beers. The freezer, though, is a whole other story …
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Fr. Saenz listening to deafening rock music. Often while doing autopsies. The novel even indicates his favourite bands—"Crush with Eyeliner", by R.E.M., is the first song he's depicted listening to. (In the film this was replaced with "Mata ng Diyos" by Wolfgang, a Pinoy metal band.)
    • Joanna Bonifacio is introduced with a decidedly unfeminine rasp that sounds like a smoker's voice, even though she's allergic to secondhand (let alone firsthand) smoke. She often surrounds herself with smokers however (like one of her partners, as well as her cameraman).
  • Evil Jesuit: An explicit inversion. Fathers Saenz and Jerome are The Heroes of this story.
  • Evil Redhead: Atty. Arcinas borders on this. His hair is dyed nearly raspberry-red, although he's less evil and more of an arrogant Glory Hound.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Alex Carlos manages a smile as the police mow him down, perhaps the only time in his sad life he could afford one.
    Jerome: He smiled, Gus. Smiled before he died.
  • Fresh Clue: In the climactic manhunt for the Serial Killer, he leaves one final victim—No. 8—butchering him more hurriedly and only cutting off the face to send a message to the priests and the NBI.
  • Freudian Excuse: Alex Carlos was raped by his gym teacher in high school, which leads to his vengeful and psychopathic actions in the present.
  • Friend on the Force: At the NBI, Ading Rustia is this to Saenz. Also the Director by extension.
  • Gratuitous French: Joanna Bonifacio speaks in French to help her deal with annoying and self-aggrandizing people—such as Atty. Arcinas. Fr Saenz also knows French, so they carry on a few conversations (partly about Arcinas) in it.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: A literary example: a crime-scene photographer opens Alex Carlos' fridge and discovers his victims' internal organs piled up inside. The novel describes it thus:
    The photographer stops. He brings the camera down to his chest, and stares into the freezer for a long time.
    Then, before the two priests can stop him, he runs, screaming, out of the apartment.
  • Gratuitous Latin: Bound to slip out from time to time given the two main protagonists are Catholic priests. At one point Fr Saenz quotes Petrarch in the original Latin.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Slightly downplayed, but this is otherwise the case for Jerome. In particular, he can't stand being around arrogant and/or wilfully ignorant people, especially in positions of power—Arcinas being a prime example.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Atty. Arcinas, who goes from stonewalling the priests to helping them after he screws up badly by arresting an innocent man for the Payatas murders.
  • Holiday in Cambodia: Much of the novella (and the extended novel, and the film) is set in the grim Manila slums, in particular the gigantic Payatas dumpsite.
  • Idiot Ball: Arcinas carries this for much of the novel, particularly during the early half when he tries to shoo off the priests' attempts to help.
  • Ignored Expert: Most of the higher-ups in government condescendingly dismiss Fr. Saenz's theory that serial killers do exist in the Philippines—they maintain that the Serial Killer phenomenon is restricted to the West, and to "white males in their thirties". note 
  • Inspector Lestrade: Atty. Arcinas is the particularly unhelpful type too, at least in the beginning. He becomes slightly more helpful after the NBI Director tears him a new one for screwing up the investigation. His "better" Lestrade moments come when he marshals official support to find the Serial Killer, under the priests' direction.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Joanna Bonifacio, who (with good reason) seems to delight in exposing Atty. Arcinas' gaffes. This being the Philippines, however, working in media is an especially dangerous job—her father ended up becoming Deadline News when he went out investigating one night. She never saw him alive again.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: The Quezon City police, in addition to being generally useless at their work, can be very territorial, especially against higher authorities like the National Bureau of Investigation. According to one NBI official:
    Ading: The QC boys get very annoyed when anyone steps on their turf.
  • Loners Are Freaks: When Jerome, Saenz, and the local authorities begin looking into the backgrounds of possible suspects, they initially dig up very little on Alex Carlos, the resident community dentist. All they know of him at first is that he is single, works efficiently and keeps to himself (even Eating Lunch Alone). He eventually confirms the investigators' suspicions.
  • Macguffin: The shiny object that reflects on the camera in Joanna's footage. It turns out to be a dental instrument—the Serial Killer's signature weapon.
  • Massively Numbered Siblings: Saenz is the tallest of seven children, and Arcinas the youngest of nine. This is in sharp contrast to Jerome, Joanna, and even the Serial Killer Alex Carlos, all of whom are implied to be only children. note 
  • Meddlesome Patrolman: One Quezon City cop tries to shoo Joanna off the crime scene—even if she is more competent at retrieving information from it than the whole unit assigned to contain the crime scene combined.
  • No Name Given: The NBI Director (originally; the 2015 edition gives his name as Francisco Lastimosa).
  • Noodle Implements: The shiny object that catches Joanna's attention at one crime scene, which is later determined to have made the curious marks on the victims' chin bones. Fr. Saenz identifies it as the whimsically-named dental elevator: [1]. note 
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Atty. Arcinas, who siphons off resources from the Payatas murder cases and turns down the priests' assistance in order to go chasing after far more sensational crimes. Never mind that his own boss asked them to help him with the said murders—Ungrateful Bastard, indeed.
    • In his defence, even Arcinas thinks (however mistakenly) that: a) the Director will agree with him that the Bureau can conclude the investigation without the priests' help; and b) the street urchin he framed might actually be the murderer (although the former could just be Arcinas trying to throw the priests off, and the latter is mostly Jerome's speculation).
    • Subverted by a few other government workers, the NBI Director most of all. The novel pointedly goes on to state that he is something of a rarity in the Philippine government, precisely because he is remarkably competent and honest. In fact it is because of this that the Director found it difficult to get good appointments in a public sector crawling with Obstructive Bureaucrats, Corrupt Bureaucrats, and friends and family of incumbent politicians.
  • Oh, Crap!: A surprisingly subdued reaction from Atty. Arcinas when another murder is reported after his men have arrested the alleged suspect. (Although it's strongly implied he did most of his freaking out "off camera", that is, immediately after he hears about the new murder and realises he's going to catch it from the NBI Director. Which he does.)
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Alex Carlos gruesomely murders the teacher who raped him in high school.
  • Police Are Useless: A defining theme in the novel. In at least one murder, the Quezon City police do nothing to process or contain the crime scene properly, and as a result, a vital piece of evidence goes missing, possibly stolen by locals for scrap. Luckily for Intrepid Reporter Joanna, her camera footage of the scene is just clear enough for Fr. Saenz to later identify the evidence as a dental instrument.
  • Police Brutality: Jerome suspects this is how local police extracted a False Confession out of Carding, the generic offender whom Atty. Arcinas frames for the serial murders.
  • Rape as Backstory: Alex's gym teacher in high school rapes and otherwise sexually abuses him and his classmates. This prompts Alex's Start of Darkness.
    • Jerome is subtly implied to have suffered this—the hints include his almost-imperceptible limp, as well as his otherwise inexplicable psychological connection with the murdered boys and his dreams involving their killer. The 2015 edition plays up this connection some more. He was also rather small, thin, and quiet in his youth, much like Alex Carlos himself.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The NBI Director, who actually sees the killings as a serious threat, and even chews out Atty. Arcinas for screwing up the investigation. Councillor Mariano as well, who lends his own time and resources (in this case the free dental services he sponsors for street urchins) to help identify the murder victims.
  • Rewind, Replay, Repeat: How Joanna Bonifacio discovers the possible murder weapon—she notices a bright flash in the video footage of a crime scene and reviews it over and over, and later prints out a frame. Fr. Saenz later confirms it to be a dental elevator [2], which normally is used to pull out teeth by the roots, but which the Serial Killer uses to remove his victims' faces.
  • Room Full of Crazy: More accurately, a Fridge Full of Crazy, which is where Alex Carlos stores his victims' internal organs. Overlaps with Cannibal Larder except he doesn't eat them.
  • Sadist Teacher: Alex Carlos' gym teacher sexually abused him and his other boy classmates. Unsurprisingly Alex later murders said teacher in revenge.
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: A very mild example Played for Laughs: Saenz often snatches Jerome's food or coffee out of his hands and finishes it off. Jerome is mostly cool with it because he has very great respect for the elder priest, who is his best friend and The Mentor to him besides.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: A heroic version: Joanna bypasses the NBI's snail-paced background check on murder suspect Alex Carlos by talking to her friends in City Hall, who are quickly able to provide her the pertinent information—"a one-woman NBI", as Jerome puts it.
  • Sexy Priest: Fr. Saenz is one—Tall, Dark, and Handsome, even when he's pushing sixty. Even he suspects a good number of his parishioners aren't there for his sermons, and a young female dentist flirts with him even as she's pulling out his teeth—and he is terrified of dentists.
  • Smug Snake: Atty. Arcinas, who preens for the public during major investigations and is so convinced he's caught the Serial Killer that he brushes off the priests' attempts to help him (as requested, in fact, by Arcinas' boss, the NBI Director)—so that when another murder turns up, the Director gives him hell for turning the priests down, and Arcinas spends the rest of the novel meekly following the priests' instructions.
  • Suicide by Cop: Saenz and Jerome guess this is how Alex Carlos wants to die. They're right.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Well, one idiot in particular: this is Jerome's reaction whenever he's in Atty. Arcinas' presence. Still, it's an implied character trait of his—the novel even describes him as "the type that does not suffer fools gladly".
  • Tear Off Your Face: What the Serial Killer does to his victims before he carves out their organs. This is in fact one of the oldest tricks in his book—he performed it on his first victim, the Sadist Teacher who raped him in high school.
  • The Tooth Hurts: Saenz hates going to dentists with a passion. It doesn't help that the Serial Killer is one—although this proves helpful to the investigation, as Saenz finds a replica of the murder weapon in a dental clinic. Either way, Saenz is due for a dental appointment, since he has an enormous cavity that's been needing attention for several months.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In-universe. Other news reporters regularly fudge the details of the case; for instance, they label Fr. Saenz as a doctor and Jerome as a criminal, not a clinical, psychologist.
  • Unsportsmanlike Gloating: Jerome badly wants to do this to Atty. Arcinas. Though considering how badly the latter blundered on the Serial Killer investigation …
    Saenz: If he does ask, will you be nice?
    Jerome: Goodness, no.
    Saenz: [sighs] I had to ask. Diplomatic at least?
    Jerome: Can I gloat for 5 minutes?
    Saenz: A child died to prove us right.
    Jerome: [thinks] All right. Three minutes.
    Saenz: One.
    Jerome: Two.
    Saenz: Done.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Serial Killer, obviously … but also his PE teacher, his first victim.
  • Wrongly Accused: Carding, a run-of-the-mill poor young man, is initially arrested by Arcinas' men for the murders. Discussed by the priests who speculate that the police simply framed him by detaining a generic sex offender, asking leading questions and roughing him up a little.

    In the 2015 re-cut edition (including new instances of previous tropes) 
  • Adaptation Expansion: Several characters are added to this edition, including clergymen (Cardinal Meneses, Fr Ramirez) and NBI operatives (Deputy Directors Jake Valdes and Philip Mapa). A number of new chapters also flesh out backstories and additional plot scenes, such as Director Lastimosa's heart attack and flight to the US for surgery.
  • At the Opera Tonight: The priests go to the Cultural Centre of the Philippines—ostensibly for a Mozart concerto, but actually to meet Mrs Iwasaki, the Japanese head of the foundation financing their research. This being the Philippines, a lot of high-society figures are also seen visibly milling about, showing off their baroque finery and judging others'. NBI Director Lastimosa and his family are also in attendance, as is the sinister Cardinal Meneses.
    • A bit of an Exaggerated Trope: while most instances of the trope take place while the performance plays in the background, in this case the performance isn't even needed except as a pretext to get several characters together; all the relevant scenes happen in the lobby before it even begins.
    • Setting up the scene in such a way that the performance was never actually depicted had a very practical benefit in the film adaptation, as it saved the production crew the whole expense of awaiting or staging an entire performance just for the sake of the movie.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": Director Lastimosa delivers this to the NBI official who signed off on Arcinas' Cowboy Cop arrest on the flimsiest of evidence, when said official tried to suck up to him by trying to pin all the blame on Arcinas himself. Said official's name is …
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: Deputy Director Philip Mapa, Arcinas' chief patron at the NBI.
  • Expy: Rafael Cardinal Meneses of real-life Jaime Cardinal Sin; like Sin, Meneses is said to have spearheaded social opposition to the Marcos dictatorship. That's about his only redeeming quality, however.
  • Forensic Accounting: How Msgr. Ramirez gets caught. The NBI, Director Lastimosa in particular, do some digging into his financial status and figure out that the money intended to support his charity has instead gone into his personal expenses — resulting in some fairly expensive properties, including a Big Fancy House attended to by "volunteers" from his orphanage (which Saenz suspects are the ones he is currently molesting).
  • Good Is Not Nice: Councillor Mariano angrily reprimands the priests for lying about their reasons for paying him a visit, even if the priests genuinely felt it was necessary to bend the truth to keep the case from spiralling out of hand.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: In the end, Alex's death haunted Fr. Saenz, who admits to having wanted to save him after learning of his Dark and Troubled Past. To this end he relentlessly pursued to bring Msgr. Ramirez to justice lest he indirectly create more people like Alex Carlos.
  • I'm Your Biggest Fan: Rommel Salustiano is this to Saenz. Possibly literally as he looks to weigh somewhere around 300 pounds. His odd, vaguely creepy habit of butting in on Saenz's work sets him up to be considered as a possible suspect, even though he doesn't fit the Serial Killer's profile (at least, not physically).
  • Justice by Other Legal Means: Because Ramirez is protected by Church protocol which forces him to transfer parishes for misdemeanor, allowing him to continue with his pedophile activity, Fr. Saenz and Dir. Lastimosa use Forensic Accounting to bypass that immunity, exposing his money laundering scheme to cause a legal case for which the Church can offer no protection. Lastimosa even uses Al Capone's case to illustrate his plan.
  • Lawful Stupid: Cardinal Meneses is keen on maintaining Church protocol through transferring Msgr. Ramirez to protect him from molestation charges as disciplinary measure. In the epilogue, he berates Saenz for breaking with tradition by helping the NBI bust Ramirez for good; Saenz simply retorts that it is his insistence on this trope that is endangering the Church's reputation.
  • Money, Dear Boy: In-Universe, both Fr. Saenz and Dir. Lastimosa rue the fact that they had to use Forensic Accounting to finally bring Msgr. Ramirez to justice. By exposing his laundering scheme, his financial backers would not only turn on him, but also set in motion legal action beyond the Church's reach, indirectly allowing them to finally press on with their own molestation case.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Francisco Lastimosa, the NBI Director.
    • Several other characters known only by one name in the original novella also get full names: for instance, Carding, the initial suspect, is given the full name Ricardo Navato.
  • Pedophile Priest: Father Isagani Ramirez, who (per the Catholic Church's usual means of damage control) has been shuffled around several parishes pending allegations of sexual molestation of children.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: NBI Deputy Director Jake Valdes, who like Director Lastimosa, Ading Rustia, and Councillor Mariano, actually considers the Payatas murders a serious concern.
  • Red Herring: Carding is the fairly obvious one. Rommel Salustiano, however, is an unconventional example.
  • Sinister Minister: Cardinal Meneses, who is shielding Msgr. Ramirez from legal or disciplinary action following accusations that the latter abused several orphans at his last posting. Also Msgr. Ramirez himself obviously.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Atty. Arcinas when he takes over the Payatas investigations from Director Lastimosa, after the latter's incapacitation from a heart attack. He's not really tyrannical per se, but acts in a stubborn, unilateral manner by launching his own investigation, which leads to Carding's arrest.
  • Wham Line: "He was murdered in his apartment." —Jake Valdes on Isabelo Gorospe, Alex Carlos' high school P.E. teacher.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Aside from the Serial Killer Alex Carlos and his former gym teacher, Msgr. Ramirez in this edition.

    In the film 
  • 20 Minutes into the Past
  • Adaptation Distillation: Due to the interests of time, several plot elements (particularly from the longer 2015 edition) have been considerably shortened, simplified, or removed altogether, only hinted at in passing. The subplot involving Msgr. Ramirez's orphanage abuses and embezzlement from a connected charity is reduced and resolved before the Payatas cases wrap up, and Joanna's backdoor approach to doing a background check on Alex Carlos is cut out entirely.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Slightly in the case of Joanna Bonifacio, and at least according to Filipino (read: Western-influenced) beauty standards. To wit:
    • The novel hints that she isn't terribly thin—she gripes (good-naturedly) about needing a liposuction budget, and her crew joke about her being curvy and various politically-correct euphemisms for fatness, and she has a raspy voice that reminds people of smokers or drag queens.
    • The film has a slender, more angular, light-skinned Joanna, played by the mixed-race Carla Humphries, who has strong facial features and no trace of a rasp.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: In his brief cameo, Rommel Salustiano appears to have been given the behaviour and accent of the stereotypical Filipino Camp Gay, something not evident in the novel. Done at least partly for Comic Relief (at one point he hits on Jerome).
  • Adaptational Ugliness: Film!Saenz (played by Nonie Buencamino) is not ugly, per se, but he's not necessarily a standout looker the way his novel counterpart is, with the latter's exceptional height, sharp features, long, stringy grey hair and fondness for youthful T-shirts; the former looks more generally average, and dresses more conservatively as well. See Ability over Appearance.
  • Adaptational Dye-Job: Atty. Arcinas does not have the weird, vividly red coiffure he sports in the novel, just regular black hair, albeit rather long (around shoulder-length). Joanna points out that "he got his curls back" instead of "he dyed his hair again", as in the book.
    • It could be the lighting, but Saenz's hair looks slightly darker than the obvious salt-and-pepper greyness it was in the book. It's also short and neatly combed, unlike his book version's long "rockstar" 'do.
  • Adapted Out: NBI official Ading Rustia, and Tato Ampil, Saenz's guitar-playing, surfer-dude-accented assistant.
  • Anachronism Stew: Some small examples:
    • Some of the buildings featured in the background of the First Person shots were built after 1997, though they're not focused on and are not iconic enough, being treated as generic skyscrapers.
    • Tess Mariano's campaign video urges would-be voters to find her name at "No. 46 on the ballot". This was not a common practice in The '90s. note  note 
  • Chiaroscuro: Many scenes are shot in extreme contrast, with low-key lighting and strong hints of saturated colour. Drives home the intense Film Noir inspiration of the movie as well as its source.
  • Creator Cameo: Original author F. H. Batacan shows up as one of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines crowd.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The priests wear black or other dark colours most of the time, but their expertise helps solve the case.
  • Demoted to Extra: Deputy Director Philip Mapa was at best a supporting character in the 2015 release of the novel, but in the movie he only really gets two scenes: Director Lastimosa warning him not to publicise the case, and Lastimosa later chewing him (and Arcinas) out when the seventh murder happens whilst Carding is in custody.
  • Driven to Suicide: Alex Carlos in this version. He stabs himself to death after stabbing Fr Saenz. He also appears to have slashed himself along the jawline prior to Saenz' arrival, as though partially repeating the boys' facial removal on himself.
  • Ensemble Cast: Starring Nonie Buencamino, Sid Lucero, Carla Humphries, Bembol Roco, Christopher de Leon among others, all noted big names in Philippine entertainment (and in some cases, in theatre).
  • Fat Bastard: Cardinal Meneses is noticeably rotund and has a physically large presence compared to either Fr. Gus or Jerome.
  • Gender Flip: With Adaptational Name Change as a side effect.
    • Councillor Mariano. In the book, a man named Cesar; in the movie, a woman named Tess.
    • Dr Santa Romana. In the book, a woman named Jeannie; in the movie, a young man named Gino. (This might actually help pin him as a possible suspect, since he resembles the priests' profile of the killer—youngish adult, rather small and thin, and often works in the health centre and mobile dental clinic. Interestingly, Jeannie in the book also asks point blank if she is being suspected.)
  • Gratuitous English: Long stretches of conversations throughout the film are in unbroken English, in part to accommodate the technical terms inherently used in fields like criminology, law enforcement, and the forensic sciences, in part because many of the characters are educated types from the middle classes upward, likely conditioned to speak English wherever possible, except in the most informal of situations. It's little surprise that what Tagalog or Taglish is used, is often used most by slum-dwellers themselves and any professionals who need to talk to them directly.
  • Gratuitous French: Saenz' and Joanna's French conversations are retained in the film.
  • Light Is Not Good: Cardinal Meneses in his tropical white cassock, in stark contrast to Fr Gus and Fr Jerome, who mostly wear black.
  • Sexy Priest: Apparently Fr Jerome is handsome enough that Camp Gay Rommel Salustiano finds himself hitting on him—and is not shy about talking about it.
  • Show Within a Show: First Person, Joanna Bonifacio's investigative-reportage show, compiled and "released" on YouTube. Each episode covers one of the several boys who became serial-killing victims at the dumpsite.

Alternative Title(s): Smaller And Smaller Circles