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’GomBurZa’ traces the seeds of revolution

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 01, 2024 5:00 am

This will sound clueless at best, but watching Pepe Diokno’s GomBurZa was when it dawned on me that “P. Burgos” is not just a street name in Makati. Yes, I’d heard of the three martyred priests of Filipino history—Fathers Gomes, Burgos and Zamora—before, but the biopic places their identity squarely amid the birth of a nation. And from that birth comes history, identity—and street names, eventually.

One of the main questions raised by the movie is how Filipino identity arose (arises?). It’s not something the native Filipinos in GomBurZa—still stuck in the Spanish convent, surrounded by landed creoles—are born with; when pressed, a servant of the creoles responds he is  “Tagalog,” a regional identity, not yet grasping the idea of national independence. Because, history tells us, independence is something that needs to be seized, not simply granted.

Enchong Dee, Dante Rivero and Cedrick Juan stand trial in Pepe Diokno’s GomBurZa.

Early on in GomBurZa, Fr. Pedro Pelaez (Piolo Pascual), a secular priest at a time when Spanish friars are muscling in on secular-run parishes (good earnings, we hear), starts mentoring young Fr. José Burgos (Cedrick Juan). (But first: Piolo Pascual as a secular priest? Surprisingly convincing!) Fr. Pelaez is all for Filipino identity, he even titles a pamphlet he’s writing “Los Filipinos,” and Burgos begins to see the big picture.

Then Fr. Palaez is killed in an earthquake, and Fr. Burgos finds himself starting to exert a more independent influence over his young Jesuit law students.

There are loads of pertinent details in GomBurZa, including how Jesuit students were forced to learn the law in Latin, because Spanish priests in Manila did not want to teach the local indios their language (despite a decree from Spain instructing them to do so). Language is power, and corralling natives into using a “dead” language was one way of restricting their knowledge and influence. At one point, Fr. Burgos rebels against this: he allows his students to speak Spanish in class. It’s the first sign that he will become an inspiration for a budding resistance, including two students—Paciano and Felipe—who start a youth rebel group.

Piolo Pascual in GomBurZa (2023) plays the outspoken Padre Pedro Pelaez

At first, GomBurZa comes down to a battle of priests: there are the regulares, or Spanish-born friars who exert a strong influence on the political and social scene in this Spanish colony; and there are the seculars, mostly educated, half-breed Spanish creoles, who tend to take on the “frontline” work in parishes, because, we’re told, locals trust them more.

Over and above this is the Spanish motherland, supplying governor-generals and keeping the local archbishops in line. When Fr. Burgos complains to them about the friars appropriating their parishes, he’s met with red-cloaked shrugs.

Diokno, in his first historical film, went for accuracy, relying heavily on the Ateneo University’s Jesuit community, particularly Jesuit professor and Father René Javellana, for background.

And on the sideline of Diokno’s movie are the business-owning creoles who see some benefit in stirring the pot against the friars—who have also been muscling into their land and profits. We see them smoking cigars in linen suits, lending financial support to a resistance, and start to realize this will not end well for Fr. Burgos or his compadres, Fr. Mariano Gomes (Dante Rivero) and Fr. Jacinto Zamora (Enchong Dee), whose role mainly consists of playing cards with one of the friars while accepting bits of chismis and, at one point, a heads up that the luck of the secular priests might be running out.

 Cedrick Juan as the young priest Padre José Burgos

The locals applaud when a new governor-general—one Carlos Maria Dela Torre, said to be more “liberal” and sympathetic to reforms—is appointed to Manila. There’s hope for the early-budding nationalism movement. But he’s quickly replaced by a true hard-ass, Governor-General Rafael Izquierdo, who vows to ferret out priestly plots and student grumblers. 

Elijah Canlas plays Paciano Mercado, a student of Father Burgos

That’s the backdrop for Diokno’s biopic. It’s shot in tight locations with beautiful cinematography, though it is very talky and expository, and sometimes hard to follow all the threads. Diokno, in his first historical film, went for accuracy, relying heavily on the Ateneo University’s Jesuit community, particularly Jesuit professor and Father René Javellana, for background. (The Jesuits also reportedly helped bankroll the film.)

We see some resonant images—the garroting of the three priests in Rizal Park brings it all home in a shockingly visual way, and a sweeping reaction shot of the crowd shows us a close-up of one of the kids watching: it’s José, the younger brother of Paciano Rizal, arrested earlier in the film for his radical views. Later, José’s take on the friars will be inscribed in his second novel, El Filibusterismo.

Another thing GomBurZa shows is how shaky and unpredictable history can be—as shaky as the earthquake that erupts early in the film. No one is completely a plotter or a victim here; even the friars (depicted most cagily by Leo Rialp’s character) find themselves caught up in the web of blame when the three priests are rounded up. It’s the insistence of a Manila archbishop that Gomes, Burgos and Zamora not be defrocked before facing execution that lends their deaths greater poignancy. “They are good priests,” he insists to the bad-haired Governor-General Izquierdo, who merely shrugs and allows the request. That truth, even the Spanish overseer can’t undo.