MIFF 2024 review: GomBurZa (Pepe Diokno)

“For a country that is continuously wounded and seems to repeat its history a lot, films of this nature are very welcome at any time.”

They say history repeats itself. Something that has happened in the past will somehow find itself being replicated again in the future. Thus, it is better to be repeatedly reminded of our history to hopefully not repeat the same mistakes we made before. Taking a page from Philippine history, GomBurZa is a portmanteau of the names of three friars: Mariano Gomes, José Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora, who were accused of orchestrating the Cavite Mutiny of 1872 and subsequently publicly executed via garrote by Spanish authorities.

Films like this are refreshing to see come to life, if not a refresher of what is taught and discussed in history classes as far back as grade school. The biggest challenge when it comes to creating films that are based on historical moments is the never-ending argument of accuracy versus dramatization. To what extent can someone incorporate creative freedom without sacrificing the accuracy of the storytelling, and vice versa? Given this dichotomy, director Pepe Diokno’s balancing act on the tightrope between these two seemingly polar opposites is a masterful one, even if it is obvious that accuracy seems more of a priority. The film mostly moves along at a safe pace, going from one incident to the next in a steady fashion. I cannot fault Diokno for it; after all, more than anyone else he understands the importance of narrating a story that hinges on facts, and he honours that importance.

It is a testament to his skill how he ups the ante in the third act of the film, once the three friars have been arrested. From this point onward there is no turning back: all the build-up leads to a depiction of their public execution, as each one meets his fate — chilly winds blowing in their faces as they plead and leave a final message to the world in their dying moments. Father Burgos (played effectively by Cedrick Juan in what is probably the performance of a lifetime), who was the last to be executed, knocks out a speech that is both heartbreaking and empowering.

The director decides not to end there but to depict how this incident affected a grieving nation. The film shows a series of events that led, one after the other, to a needed wake-up call and an inspiration to the country’s claim for individuality. It is bittersweet to think that these friars were not there to witness such events anymore, but hopefully they somehow know they have done their part. The film successfully manages to avoid portraying them as heroes who should be worshipped, but instead shows them as catalysts that would spark change. In the end GomBurZa leaves a powerful message that hopefully resonates with its audience. It might be a reminder, a warning, or a premonition. For a country that is continuously wounded and seems to repeat its history a lot, films of this nature are very welcome at any time.