In the dim recesses of a cellar, amidst trembling shadows and stifled sobs, three priests—Mariano Gomez (portrayed by Dante Rivero), Jose Burgos (portrayed by Cedrick Juan), and Jacinto Zamora (portrayed by Enchong Dee)—stand as harbingers of a nation's anguish. Their faces, etched with fear, confront the chilling inevitability of their fate—a fate that will solidify their names in the household of Filipino martyrdom. "GomBurZa," a haunting symphony of sorrow and sacrifice, directed by the visionary Pepe Diokno, beckons us into a world of injustice, betrayal, and the unyielding quest for the identity of the Filipino people during Spanish rule.

The hype surrounding this Metro Manila Film Festival hit, winning seven awards including Best Actor (Cedrick Juan), Best Director (Pepe Diokno), and 2nd Best Picture, shines through its acting, cinematography, and historical precision. However, unlike Tarog’s Heneral Luna (2015) or Diaz-Abaya’s Jose Rizal (1998), it falls short of evoking a grander sense of nationalism in its heroes since it focuses more on emphasizing their mundane yet realistic narratives.

The Philippines: A Cursed Nation

In this historical biopic depiction of the three martyrs, the emphasis lies not so much on delving deeply into their characters, but rather on illustrating the circumstances that led to their capture and execution. While the film attempts to unveil various facets of the three priests, it is the backdrop of the societal system and the events that shaped them that resonates more strongly. As a result, the audience is left with a sense of curiosity about the narrative rather than a deeper understanding of the characters themselves.

The film opens with the introduction of Apolinario de la Cruz, the religious figure known as Hermano Pule, who was denied priesthood by the Spaniards due to his native origin. Pule subsequently established the Cofradía de San José, a group practicing Christian principles infused with other beliefs. Members of the Cofradía were targeted and killed by the Spaniards, culminating in Pule's execution by firing squad. The screen, bathed in hues of orange, symbolizes a passionate fervor, igniting the central theme of the movie: when the system is rigged, innocents inevitably bear the burden of injustice.

It also raises a fundamental question: "Are we really a nation that was cursed?" This theme, intricately woven into the storyline, reflects not only throughout history but also in the circumstances of the present. The sequence of unfortunate events dominating our country without an outright explanation makes you realize, are we really that unlucky?

Padre Pedro Pelaez, mentor to Burgos (portrayed by Piolo Pascual), perishes unexpectedly in the Manila Cathedral during an earthquake. Subsequently, Burgos's law student, accused of anti-Spanish sentiments due to his outspokenness, meets the fate of extrajudicial killing. The deaths of the three martyrs, Hermano Pule, Andres Bonifacio, and Jose Rizal, spark a sense of inquiry on how there needs to be a sacrifice for us to achieve some ‘good luck’ in our country.

Realistic, Not Electrifying

Unlike more dopamine-inducing and emotionally charged historical dramas, “GomBurZa” uses a more grounded approach. The story is divided into chapters, with the chapter text being presented in the movie itself. It carries a vibe reminiscent of independent cinema, yet at times, characters express their beliefs in a somewhat authoritative manner, directing the audience's attention instead of allowing them to discover it themselves. While the dialogue is acceptable, some scenes do not need to be said at all as they can be already interpreted visually.

The film also struggles at times to balance historical accuracy with captivating storytelling. Occasionally, it leans towards delivering a scene-by-scene effect rather than delivering a completely immersive cinematic experience. There are moments where audiences are shocked by intense scenes, only to be interrupted by depictions of mundane everyday life, creating a back-and-forth rhythm of shock and mundanity. Some people may find this a balanced approach, and some might find it interruptive.

A Play of Tilt, Light, and Color

One thing this film did best: cinematography. The film's cinematography, masterfully crafted by Carlo Canlas Mendoza, juxtaposes light and shadow to symbolize a spark of brightness and hope amid prevailing darkness, reminiscent of Spielbergian and Hitchcockian aesthetics. Each tilt of the camera, employing Dutch angles, unsettles the audience, mirroring the unease of the characters. Through lighting, angles, and color, the essence of the characters is conveyed more deeply than in their dialogue. 

Reflecting on Nationalism at Present

As the film draws to its emotionally stirring conclusion with the martyrs executed through garrote, it serves as a reflection on the enduring legacy of sacrifice. "GomBurZa" transcends conventional cinema, emerging as a call to arms for Filipino resilience in the face of oppression. 

Unlike films that offer escapist fantasies, "GomBurZa" confronts reality and its inherent mundanity, illustrating that fighting over and over again will still be in vain if the system is biased and unjust. Therefore, viewers should anticipate a somewhat documentary-like approach rather than expecting the thrill of a superhero movie.

In the final scenes, the recurring orange hues resurface, this time accompanying the depiction of the Katipunan and Jose Rizal's execution. True to its theme, the film not only portrays the three martyrs but also highlights the various societal injustices endured by other prominent heroes.

Jose Rizal honors the three priests of GomBurZa: Padre Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora, by dedicating his novel "El Filibusterismo" to them. Rizal believed that independence was useless without education. What significance does independence hold if today's slaves become tomorrow's oppressors?

Today, there is a resounding call to acknowledge that while we have gained independence from Spanish rule, the specter of oppression still persists. The prevailing conditions in the Philippines highlight that mere independence does not suffice; rather, we require the embodiment of genuine leadership values, a fair and equitable justice system, and effective governance policies to foster the advancement of our authentic Filipino identity.

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