by Narah Faigal
Philippine cinema continues to honor history and give tribute to stories and heroes of the past. This year, Director Pepe Diokno honors martyr priests from the Spanish colonial period with the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) 2023 entry, GOMBURZA.
The film follows the lives of the three renowned Filipino Catholic priests—the eponymous Padre Mariano Gomez, Padre Jose Burgos, and Padre Jacinto Zamora—as they strive to fight for the rights of their countrymen to be on equal standing with Spaniards. It is a film that lights a spark of nationalism in its characters and ignites that fire in those who watch this historical masterpiece.
You could say that the film brings out one’s textbook knowledge and goes beyond what is already known, all the while framing the familiar story of the martyr priests as an impressive historical epic. Here is a High Five review of the MMFF 2023 entry, GOMBURZA.
The film starts off with a brief history of Spanish colonial rule in the country. It introduces indios – a derogatory term Spaniards used for native Filipinos – who dream of becoming priests but are rejected by Spanish authorities due to racial discrimination. The film then introduces Hermano Pule, a religious leader who established the Cofradía de San José – a religious order exclusive to native Filipinos made in response to the racism of the time. This unprecedented event set off a chain of events that would influence the rest of history and the rest of the movie.
The introduction makes use of a plain solid background, with minimal actors and set design. While this choice is initially baffling, do not let this first look fool you for what is about to come. Right after the first scenes summarizing the state of Philippine history until the 19th century, viewers are greeted by an infuriated Padre Pedro Pelaez holding a stack of papers documenting false accusations by Spaniards against Filipino priests. This smoothly transitions and introduces the first two priests in the eponymous film – Padre Gomez and Padre Burgos.
The way the initial scene unfolds shows just why GOMBURZA won the Best Cinematography award among all other MMFF entries. This showcase of editing and camera movement coupled with the screenplay that introduces the characters in the middle of the action makes them feel like real people living real lives.
The film follows a linear plot progression divided into four chapters: “Historidad (History),” where the main conflict is introduced through a brief recap of Philippine history; “Wika ng Liberalismo (Language of Liberalism),” where the flames of Filipino hope are stoked through the coming of a new Governor General, but are quickly diminished due to Spaniards branding their form of liberation as “radical”; “Hustisya ng mga Espanya (Justice of the Spaniards),” where the guilty verdict is given to GOMBURZA despite evidence and witness testimony supporting the priests, showing the casual cruelty and bias of Spaniards against Filipinos; and finally, “Liwanag sa Dilim (Light in Darkness),” where Padre Gomez explains that he can only hope that their story can bring about some light in the darkness of Spanish colonial rule.
The chapter divisions serve as framing devices that help foreground specific themes explored by the film. This progression effectively works to spark the flame of nationalism among viewers.
Philippine history textbooks only introduce GOMBURZA to the general public as three priests who were falsely accused of initiating the Cavite Mutiny and sentenced to death by garrote or strangulation. This is mainly due to the lack of primary sources on the priests, and with whatever historical documents may exist that are yet undiscovered, their personal histories may never come to light.
With the creative freedom inherent in adapting history for film, GOMBURZA fills in the historical gaps and, through its narrative, shows us the value of revolting against oppression and how small actions can have a massive impact that can influence future generations. This can be traced from Padre Pelaez’s fight for Filipino priests’ rights to Padre Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora’s martyrdom, and in real life, how GOMBURZA inspired people such as Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio and the Katipunan, and other Filipino heroes who have borne witness to injustice their whole lives. As with everything else, we are all connected, especially in our fight for freedom.
The Impact of Acting
GOMBURZA took great effort to adapt the story of its eponymous protagonists, but the actors deserve much of the credit for bringing these historical figures to life. Cedrick Juan won the MMFF Gabi ng Parangal Best Actor award for his portrayal of Padre Jose Burgos, while Enchong Dee and Dante Rivero put on commendable performances as Padre Zamora and Gomez respectively.
The chemistry between actors helped propel the story to great heights, as they embodied the justified anger, pride, and hurt of these priests amidst the plight of their people. The actors also had dialogue in different languages, which, despite the language barrier, was able to evoke the desired emotions among viewers.
From B-rolls to close-up shots, it would be downplaying it to say that this film was carefully curated. It is praiseworthy how GOMBURZA was able to successfully make every frame and composition mean something in the context of the story that it wanted to tell. Camera movements and angles complement the storytelling on a stylistic level, taking us along for an epic and dramatic ride.
Overall, the film was satisfying to watch. Considering that this is Pepe Diokno’s first foray into historical drama, the resulting film effectively captured the nationalistic ideals of Filipinos under Spanish rule. This multi-award-winning film definitely deserves the recognition it has gained.
SEA Wave gives this film a rating of 4 out of 5.
What are your thoughts about “GOMBURZA”? Share it with us in the comment section.
For more movie reviews, pop culture trends and Southeast Asian stories, visit seawavemag.com