Nonie Buencamino's Restrained Performance in 'Smaller and Smaller Circles' Is a Must-Watch

IMAGE Artu Nepomuceno

There was, of course, GK Chesterton’s Father Brown and Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville and a few others. The bench of clerical detectives in mystery fiction isn’t exactly deep. But you can add FH Batacan’s Father Gus Saenz and Father Jerome Lucas to bolster the ranks. And this December, we're finally going to get to see the Jesuit duo up on the big screen in an adaptation by director Raya Martin.

Batacan’s Smaller And Smaller Circles is ostensibly a murder mystery. There is a murder, or rather a series of murders, all gruesome, and there is a procedural investigation, conducted by the two aforementioned priests, roped in to help solve a string of grisly child murders. 

But it’s a crime novel beholden to other concerns—like puncturing the myth that serial killers don’t exist in the Philippines, for one thing. It's something Nonie Buencamino, who plays Father Gus Saenz in the book's movie adaptation, would like to correct. “It’s a very narrow belief. The notion that serial killers don’t exist in a Third World country is a very Western bias.”

When Martin handpicked Buencamino to play Saenz in the film, the role fit him like a glove. It was the character, in fact, that drew him to the material, a character whose built-in discrepancies he finds little dissonance in. “Church people are more logical, more rational than we think. There’s no contradiction.”


Buencamino’s strength is, of course, his dexterous range. He’s embarking on a tenure as a soap opera character early next year, but his métier is his sensibility. Despite his theater background, where the acting is routinely (perhaps unfairly) stereotyped as being pitched at a higher register than normal, the characters he plays on film are marked with nuance and subtlety, often tapping into an inner quiet that subdues the performance to the point that he disappears into the character. However, he insists that this isn’t necessarily what happens. “There’s always a part of me in every character. You can never say I was completely transformed. ”  

The sleazy mayor in Barber’s Tales, for example, could have easily lapsed into boorish caricature, but Buencamino saw him as a coiled serpent. His conflicted college professor in Dagitab is a blast of silences that makes you lean in to parse his turmoils. In How To Disappear Completely, he played an alcoholic, borderline demonic father like a simmering pot of acid.

How To Disappear Completely, incidentally, was the first film Buencamino made with Martin. Not so much a genre piece but a genre inversion, it took a looser, more freeform approach. At one point, Martin asked Buencamino to improvise a scene where he talked to a chicken, a scene that laid bare a swatch of the character’s insidious darkness without resorting to your go-to horror film histrionics and clichés. It was, unsurprisingly, one of the creepiest moments in a film already bristling with disturbance.

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Smaller And Smaller Circles, by dint of the material’s demands, not to mention being more rigidly scripted, was shot more conventionally. Buencamino’s preparation was also slightly more methodical, even by his own standards. “I read a lot of spiritual literature, to put myself in the mode of a man who lives by faith. The mark of a priest is his spiritual life, hich he lives from moment to moment, and which is internal.”

There are a few seconds near the end of the film where Saenz is saying Mass, and the sight of the character decked out in priestly vestments saying Mass comes on like a clout on the head—shocking the viewer (or me at least), into remembering what he is. That’s mostly out of how Buencamino has, up until this point, diffused the accoutrements of his character’s priesthood to the point that you often don’t see the priest but rather the detective, the scientist, the morally outraged crusader. “A priest is a priest. Regardless of what he wears.” Fair enough. But that doesn’t take away from the cunning misdirection and graceful restraint of the performance.

Hunting jacket by Sugarcane, available at Regiment. Sport coat by CH Carolina Herrera, Greenbelt 5. Styled by Clifford Olanday; grooming by Joan Teotico using NARS Cosmetics; hair by Jayjay Gallego for Creations by Lourd Ramos Salon. Catch Smaller and Smaller Circles, in theaters now. For more information and screening schedules, visit the movie's official Facebook page.

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Dodo Dayao
Dodo Dayao is the director of Violator and If You Leave. He lives in Quezon City and is always working on something.
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