The Circle of Responsibility

“Look closer.”  So goes the tag line of the critically-acclaimed  film “Smaller and Smaller Circles.” Its producers could not have chosen a more apt invitation to the Filipino moviegoer.   Based on the award-winning novel written by F.H. Batacan,  SASC, as its growing cult following refer to the movie, is more than a well-crafted Filipino crime thriller about two priests on the trail of a serial killer in Payatas. More importantly, It is a compelling invitation for its viewers to look closer at two levels.

At the first level, SASC urges us to look closer at the continuing battle between hope and despair as it is unfolding in our church and in our government. Hope is what the viewer would glimpse as one watches Fathers Saenz and Lucero rage against the dying of the light perpetrated by Cardinal Meneses and Monsignor Ramirez.  Hope is what would greet the viewer as one observes the clash between what is right  as championed by NBI Director Lastimosa and Deputy Valdez versus what is convenient as epitomized by NBI Director Mapa and Atty. Arcinas.

The passion and resilience of Fathers Saenz and Lucero along with that of  Director Lastimosa and reporter Joanna Bonifacio are reminiscent of the grit and tenacity that must have been displayed by my teacher in philosophy who died a few years ago.  Disturbed no end by the threat posed by a corporation to his community, he waged a protracted albeit non-violent battle against the powers that be. Alas, it proved to be a lonely battle as well. The validation that he thought he could expect  from his colleagues never came. Dismayed by the lack of solidarity and the surfeit of ostracism that he was subjected to,  he  fled the country and eventually  died alone and penniless in the cold streets of New York.

Which brings us to the second level that SASC is exhorting its viewers to take a closer look at.  As we realize, to our horror, that the evil that is at the centre of the battle being waged by Saenz et al. came into being precisely because hope requires solidarity to prevail against despair, the movie challenges its viewers to answer the question: what will you do about it?

Shall you hound Ramirez to the ends of the earth a’la Saenz? Or shall you sweep the dirt under the rug like Cardinal Meneses? Shall you take the long and difficult route to the truth like Director Lastimosa? Or shall you go for the easier  path preferred by Atty. Arcinas? Shall you be as involved as the feisty Joanna Bonifacio?  Or shall you choose to look the other way like the fearful classmate in Emong Ricafrente?

I remember the three classmates I had the privilege of sitting next to in a public seminar somewhere in Makati. All three could have led comfortable lives in Europe where they all hail from.  Yet they chose to throw their lot with the marginalized in our country by providing second chances to reformed juvenile delinquents.  Moved by their dedication for the less privileged, I profusely expressed my appreciation for what they do. After thanking me for my kind words, they then asked me if I was willing to help them in any way. Looking back from the lens of SASC, they might as well have said: now that you know what we do, what will  you do to help us continue what we do?

The fact of the matter is that  not every Father Saenz in our country could rely on a Director Lastimosa or a Joanna Bonifacio. Not every Father Saenz could depend on a Father Lucero. Consider what happened to my late teacher.  Consider for that matter,  what could happen to the mission of my three classmates if the greater majority would choose to imbibe the apathy of an Emong Ricafrente – a kind of apathy that is bred by fear of the attendant consequences of involvement. It is precisely in this regard that “Smaller and Smaller Circles” ultimately and inescapably  brings the Filipino viewer within the circle of responsibility that  Emmanuel Levinas so powerfully describes and echoes from Fyodor Dostoevsky: “I am responsible for all, before all, and I more than all the others.”