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REVIEW: 'GomBurZa' is a gripping historical drama

By Mikhail Lecaros Published Dec 28, 2023 6:15 pm

From the moment the term “Filipino” was (derogatorily) conferred on locally born Spaniards, to when revolutionaries co-opted it to refer to anyone born in the archipelago, the notion of a Philippine national identity has sparked no end of discourse, dialogue, and debate. Over four centuries on, that discussion is nowhere near a resolution, compounded by decades of inadequate education, rampant misinformation, and (oftentimes) willful ignorance from multiple sectors.

Pepe Diokno’s (Engkwentro, Above the Clouds) serves as the latest entry in a nationalist cinematic renaissance that began with 2015’s Heneral Luna. Scoring big with both critics and audiences, Heneral Luna not only proved the viability of local productions, it revealed a demand for content exploring what being Filipino really meant. With textbooks and pundits failing to provide coherent answers (much less a consensus), the opportunity was ripe for filmmakers to explore the historical events that brought us here in the first place.

GomBurZa tells the story of priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora, whose trial and subsequent execution by the Spanish government made them martyrs of the then-nascent Philippine Revolution.

Dante Rivero (Love or Money), Cedrick Juan (Huling Palabas), and Enchong Dee (Here Comes the Groom) feature as the title characters, backed by a solid roster of stars and character actors, including Piolo Pascual (On the Job), Jaime Fabregas (Jose Rizal), and Nanding Josef (Oras De Peligro). 

Dante Rivero as Padre Mariano Gomez

The film opens with Philippine-born Padre Pedro Pelaez (Pascual) instilling Padre Burgos (Juan), with the importance of being treated equally with their Spanish-born counterparts. When an order from Madrid places Philippine parishes under the control of Spanish friars, Pelaez appeals to the local archdiocese to reverse the decision.

As tensions mount, and backroom debates rage over Pelaez’s audacity, an Act of God removes the young priest from the equation. Undeterred, Burgos decides to pick up where his mentor left off, and, through surreptitious writings, forces everyone involved to contemplate the question of what it truly means to be a Filipino. 

While the 2023 Metro Manila Film Fest will go down as the year wherein Piolo Pascual played no less than two 19th-century secular priests, his short turn in GomBurZa should go a long way toward reinforcing his status as one of his generation’s best performers.

Newcomer Cedrick Juan—who ultimately received the best actor award—shines as Burgos, his onscreen protégé, projecting palpable intelligence and empathy whenever he’s onscreen. Priding himself as a man of the cloth, but bristling at the second-class status dictated by his birth, Burgos has few qualms about incepting ideas of justice and equality in his students. 

Padre Burgos (Cedrick Juan) prides himself as a man of the cloth, but bristles at the second-class status dictated by his birth.

Spurred on by Pelaez and his ability to turn a phrase, the majority of the film is presented from Burgos’ point of view. Burgos, the only open liberal, stands in contrast to Gomez, who—while sharing many of the same sentiments—maintains a stance of cautious conservatism. At the same time, Zamora is portrayed as being relatively neutral, socializing with people of different social strata, seemingly indifferent to the political maneuvering taking place around them. 

Endlessly engaging, GomBurZa is a riveting historical drama, with the bulk taking place in conference halls and dining rooms, as the elites, their lieutenants, and various attendants confer on current events.

Excellent acting across the board is complemented by Carlo Canlas Mendoza’s cinematography, whose naturalistic compositions bring out the best in every shot, resulting in images that are striking in their beauty, yet elegant as the story requires. 

The script, by Diokno and award-winning playwright Rodolfo C. Vera, takes a matter-of-fact approach to the narrative, presenting each faction as simply being out to defend their interests. While certain sequences and dialogue exchanges were clearly embellished for dramatic purposes, there is nary a sense of artifice to the proceedings.

While a greater level of storytelling nuance would have been appreciated, the sheer necessity of this story being accessible to as wide an audience as possible likely negated such considerations. 

Piolo Pascual as Padre Pedro Pelaez.

Make no mistake, this is a brilliant film on every level. Acting is generally superb, as each faction is presented conversing in their native language, further driving home the class divisions imposed by the colonial government.

Regardless of their respective stances of position, Diokno takes pains to show the blanket effect of history–rich or poor, indio or illustrado—all will be changed by the events taking place. When an attempted uprising takes a turn for the worst, we are reminded that this revolution’s failure will inspire the success of the next one.

Which, of course, brings us to the elephant in the room: What does it mean to be a Filipino? 

Unfortunately, the conundrum of a national identity was never going to be solved on a cinema screen, but if intelligent, historically accurate films like GomBurZa can inspire our countrymen to learn more about their nation and themselves, then maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for the Philippines yet. 

The fight for the Filipinos continues. 

Long live GomBurZa.