Warning: this article contains spoilers.
Within the confines of a classroom, the name "GomBurZa" frequently echoes through the history lessons of our elementary school days. We were told of their martyrdom and how it inspired Jose Rizal's El Filibusterismo and later fueled the birth of Katipunan and the broader revolutionary cause. Yet, instances such as teenage contestants on Pinoy Big Brother failing to identify the historical figures by labeling them "MaJoHa" expose the uncomfortable reality that our collective memory is slipping away. Hence, the stories of those who shaped our nation risk being lost.
The winds of change, however, are blowing through the pages of history as an official entry to this year's Metro Manila Film Festival, GomBurZa (2023), breathes life into the timeworn accounts of three martyred priests.
Guided by the adept hand and direction of Pepe Diokno, the film delves into the intricate lives of three indigenous Filipino Roman Catholic priests — Fr. Mariano Gómez, Fr. José Burgos, and Fr. Jacinto Zamora — united under their portmanteau name, "Gom-Bur-Za." This cinematic journey unfolds against the deafening backdrop of the latter years of the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines, a time when these revered figures faced unjust accusations of subversion at the hands of Spanish friars in the aftermath of the 1872 Cavite mutiny.
Reflecting the myriad societal ills that presently beset our nation, Pepe Diokno's GomBurZa serves as a profound revelation, awakening those who find themselves bereft of truth and entangled in the blindness that veils reality.
History comes to life
Screencap from GomBurZa (2023)
The film's temporal magic immerses us in the past with Fr. Pedro Pelaez, portrayed by Piolo Pascual, recounting the poignant saga of Hermano Pule — an Indio rejected for the priesthood. Pule's establishment of the Cofradia De San Jose in defiance of discriminatory practices led to his execution by Spanish authorities, casting a haunting intro that serves as a foreshadowing, setting the stage for the unfolding drama.
While the storytelling in GomBurza is commendable, the initial act falters with an emphasis on prolonged dialogues that risk becoming tedious for viewers. The scenes, laden with extensive conversations, give off a somewhat fragmented vibe akin to a laborious history lecture on screen. Yet, amidst the gradual unfolding, the dialogue steals the spotlight, with actors seamlessly transitioning between Filipino, Spanish, and Latin, leaving an indelible impression that's hard to overlook.
Divided into four parts, the film strives for a structured pace, though occasionally feeling sluggish with lingering scenes in the subsequent acts that come up. Cedrick Juan's portrayal of Fr. Jose Burgos stands out, exuding conviction and somber earnestness. Juan's truthful performance vividly captures the firm spirit of the progressive young priest, characterized by meticulous passion. It was as if the very soul of Fr. Burgos had taken residence within the embodiment of Juan. However, his dominant screen presence somewhat overshadows his fellow lead actors, Dante Rivero and Enchong Dee. This creates a narrative imbalance that leans towards a "Burgos" movie rather than a cohesive portrayal of "GomBurZa."
Dante Rivero's portrayal infuses a blend of serene weight into the wizened character of Fr. Mariano Gomez, presenting him as someone who has weathered many storms and remains prepared for whatever lies ahead. Rivero's calm demeanor reveals a wise priest, serving as a guiding force and anchor to his youngest counterpart, Burgos.
While Enchong Dee's portrayal of Fr. Jacinto Zamora, a card-game enthusiast, may occupy a minor role with limited screen time. He often lingers in the background and offers only a surface-level introduction to his character, with scenes of him in the second act mainly revolving around gambling. Yet, even in these fleeting moments, his presence is not underestimated. The significance of his character becomes more apparent, particularly in the concluding segments of the final act, adding a nuanced layer to the narrative. Despite the brevity, Dee's portrayal leaves an imprint, highlighting the subtleties contributing to the film's overall impact.
Paciano Mercado and Felipe Buencamino, played by Elijah Canlas and Tommy Alejandrino, add an intriguing depth to the drama. They anchor the narrative's themes of hope. Mentored by Burgos, the two students' zeal and spirited drive play a crucial part in upholding liberal values and serving as compelling representations of the youth.
With an astounding ensemble cast, the film brings to life the many societal divisions of the time. It precisely illustrates the arbitrary fate of three priests during a theological crisis under Spanish colonialism as they advocate for justice for secular priests and all Filipinos.
Beacon of sacrifice
Screencap from GomBurZa (2023)
“Nawa’y maging mitsa ang ating pagkamatay”
"Para sa liwanag"
The concluding moments within the priests' imprisonment mark the film's most heavy scenes. So much resonates in these final moments. An embroidery weaved with strands of bravery, an immense love for their countrymen, and an unwavering devotion to the pursuit of justice. It is a quiet declaration and a sincere testament, clad in cassocks; it showcases the noble purpose of standing on the precipice of their fate as both priests and Filipinos. The wretched realization emerges: despite their pastoral roles, they lack the protective shield one might expect, and in this solemn moment, their only weapon is their unyielding faith.
One of the few notable exchanges in the third act was the premise that being born in the Philippines carries an innate sense of misfortune. It depicts the dreadful reality that one's birthplace alone could determine one's fate, exposing Filipinos to a predestined fate clouded by prejudice. Their conversation continued how it serves as a stark reminder of the enduring parallels between the past and our present reality. It lays bare the unsettling truth that, even today, history tends to replay itself.
We now see echoes of unjust governance, a faltering justice system, and the unsettling rise of power dynamics.This film's portrayal of this dialogue prompts a genuine reflection on how specific themes persist across time, making it impossible to ignore the shared threads between our past and the challenges we face today.
Moments before the three priests were to be executed by garrote, the discussion between Burgos and Gomez about the very distinction of fate and faith was also explored, navigating through the priests' unwavering faith, emphasizing the mournful reality that having a strong faith does not usually go hand in hand with a much favorable fate. The discussion unfolds, centering on Gomez's profound conviction that their punishments are by God's plan despite the inherent injustice. It resonates with a universal truth — that life's twists and turns may not be entirely avoidable, yet they are part of a greater purpose. Even within the grasp of a seemingly harsh fate, a profound belief exists that their martyrdom serves a significant and meaningful purpose. And indeed, it does.
Echoes of national pride
Screencap from GomBurZa (2023)
As the projector flickers to life, so too does the significance of the lives of GomBurZa, stepping out from the shadows to command our attention. While the country's education system may have faltered in imparting its full narrative, and a predetermined state of collective historical oblivion may have settled in, the cinema screen nevertheless unfolds a canvas where the threads of the past and present weave together. Here, the legacy of GomBurZa and their martyrdom become a rallying cry for the undying flame of justice that ignites within the heart of every Filipino.
The cinema met a heavy silence as the execution of the three priests came about. The scene was beautifully executed, showing the different approaches of the three priests in the face of their death. The sparks of passion only intensified as the film unfolded a dynamic sequence following the execution. From a young Jose Rizal witnessing the priests' fate to an older incarnation portrayed by Khalil Ramos, the narrative seamlessly transitioned into the day he penned El Filibusterismo in homage to the triad's sacrifice. The poignant symmetry continued as Rizal faced his execution at the very site where the priests met their fate, setting off a chain reaction that fueled the awakening of Filipino consciousness, ultimately paving the way for the historic revolution of 1896.
As the Philippine flag gracefully waved and the credits began to roll, this historic oeuvre left me in a trance. My gaze was lost in contemplation long after the theater emptied. The collective sniffles and applause after the movie echoed our shared emotional journey. It was an emotional release, prompting a heavy questioning within me and an earnest yearning to stand up for what is right.
As intriguing as the film is, it managed to imbue a fierce and ardent vision to the concluding verses of the country's national anthem, "Aming ligaya na pag may mang-aapi, Ang mamatay nang dahil sa iyo." I walked out of the theater with a heart weighed down yet fortified, knowing that in the aftermath of its impact. My sense of national identity emerged clearer and stronger than ever before. A sense of profound pride welled within me, ignited by the compelling storytelling and the unwavering commitment to the narrative. Pepe Diokno's GomBurZa has, without a doubt, kindled a patriotic flame, resonating with the very core of what it means to be Filipino.
At the 49th Metro Manila Film Festival, GomBurZa is the most awarded film, clinching prestigious accolades, including Best Actor, Best Director, 2nd Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Sound Design.
The film is currently showing in all cinemas until January 7, 2024.