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‘Gomburza’ review: A winding vicarial tale

Lé Baltar

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‘Gomburza’ review: A winding vicarial tale
'Marred by its winding structure, Gomburza, in this retelling, feels just as elusive as this thing we loosely refer to as national identity'

Spoilers ahead.

It’s a ready fact that El Filibusterismo, the second and last novel completed by Filipino national hero José Rizal, was dedicated to the memory of three Filipino secular priests, Mariano Gómes, José Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora, collectively known as Gomburza, who were unjustly accused of subversion by Spanish friars following the 1872 Cavite revolt and were then executed by garrote. The trio’s martyrdom would later ignite the inception of Katipunan and the revolutionary cause at large.

Bearing the martyred priests’ portmanteau name as its title, Pepe Diokno’s latest film uproots this pivotal juncture in Philippine history — a work that is certainly confident to discourse on the grand, yet succeeds only to an extent.

An entry to this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival, Gomburza tracks the lives and tribulations of the three clergymen and Burgos’s mentor, Pedro Pelaez, whose campaign for equal rights among priests, who were still separated by social demarcations in Spanish-era Philippines, earned the ire of the colonizers.

The film opens with the story of Hermano Pule, the native leader who founded the religious order Confraternity of Saint Joseph in retaliation to the discriminatory practices of the Catholic Church against local priests at the time, which was eventually met with brute force by the colonial army, leading to Pule’s execution. This story, recounted by Padre Pelaez, sets the tone fittingly, precisely because it acts as a caveat to what awaits the central characters, a repetition of some sort, as one might point out.

And what unravels later on is exactly this, only told in a direction that often meanders, replete with details and locations that, at times, end up uninterrogated, if not fly over one’s head. The narrative, in fact, is split into four parts: from the beginning of the rift between the native priests and Spanish friars, to the spread of liberalism, to the foiled mutiny, down to the repercussions of Gomburza’s martyrdom. And the decision to adhere to this linear mode is what besets the film most, for it only goes through so much information and largely operates in broad strokes that it falters to land and shape its emotional heft. The storytelling, then, winds up as rather fragmented, like a tedious history lesson not because of its subject but because of how it is presented.

Still from ‘Gomburza’

The camerawork, while impressive in most instances, also has this tendency to linger in scenes and revel in this lingering, so much so that it harms the film’s pace and momentum. Even the film’s use of tableau is not quite a neat choice.

But Gomburza is not without any moments of brilliance, earned chiefly through the performances of its ensemble. Cedrick Juan as Padre Burgos embodies the resolve of his character with much conviction, especially at the time of the character’s incarceration and in the film’s endnote, rendered more affecting by the score of Teresa Barrozo. Piolo Pascual as Pedro Pelaez also churns out decent work despite his limited screen time, particularly in a scene where he, before the colonial court, has to stand his ground against Spanish friars objecting to the demands of secular priests to head local parishes. The duo of Elijah Canlas and Tommy Alejandrino as Paciano Mercado and Felipe Buencamino, respectively, also hands Gomburza an interesting note, for it is through them that the film affixes its notions of hope.

Yet much of the writing is concentrated on the emotional odyssey of Burgos that one only ever gets to know the other characters on a surface level, like Enchong Dee’s Padre Zamora, who is mostly relegated to the background. Had the script afforded Zamora more depth and interiority, then the character’s tonal shift and descent into a state of surrender towards the end would have drawn more gravity to it.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the film doesn’t hold any weight in terms of its message: how the past continues to ripple until today, especially under the behest of another Marcos; how history rolls on a Möbius strip, repeatable by design, unless we actively cut all threads of distortions that allow it; and how faith and resistance are never mutually exclusive. If anything, the film achieves that, just not in a way that excites audience members or at least elevates this particular message. Any cinematic work, after all, must harness its visual grammar to be effective, to clearly outline what it intends to say, and avoid running the risk of substantiating its reason for being.

Marred by its winding structure, Gomburza, in this retelling, feels just as elusive as this thing we loosely refer to as national identity. –

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.