Debunking some misses in hit film ‘GomBurZa’

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ON THIS DAY, 152 years ago, three Filipino priests were executed by garrote in Bagumbayan (now Rizal Park) on trumped-up treason and sedition charges–deaths that marked a pivotal point in Philippine history. The tragic end of the 1872 Cavite Mutiny triggered the events that led to the Filipino revolt against three centuries of Spanish colonial rule.

The story of Fr. Mariano Gomes, Fr. Jose Burgos, and Fr. Jacinto Zamora–or together, more popularly known as GomBurZa–was recounted in Pepe Diokno’s titular film submitted as an official entry to the 49th Metro Manila Film Festival.

“GomBurZa” (2023) bagged the most number of accolades in the film fest, winning Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Second Best Picture, and the Gatpuno Antonio Villegas Cultural Award. 

READ MORE: MMFF 2023 in review, Batch 2: ‘Becky & Badette,’ ‘Broken Heart’s Trip,’ ‘Firefly,’ ‘GomBurZa,’ ‘Mallari,’ and ‘When I Met You in Tokyo’ 

But how much of the story of the three martyr priests did the film get right? 

The Varsitarian scoured history books and talked to a historian, Assoc. Prof. Maria Eloisa De Castro of the Faculty of Arts and Letters, to find out which parts of the movie veered away from historical truth.

Burgos never taught at UST

Contrary to the film’s depiction, Burgos did not teach in UST and, thus, never had Paciano Rizal Mercado (the older brother of Jose Rizal) and Felipe Buencamino as his students at the University.

Based on the book  “Fr. Jose Burgos: University Student” by late UST archivist Fr. Fidel Villarroel, O.P., Burgos was part of the Claustro de Profesores, a group of doctors, masters, and licentiates that made decisions related to academic life in UST. 

Being a holder of licentiate and doctorate degrees from UST, Burgos automatically became a member of the Claustro, which meant he had facilitated examinations, attended meetings, and even elected Master of Ceremonies for investiture ceremonies in the University.

“If you are a student at that time, and you finished your doctorate, when you get your degree, automatically you are a member of the Claustro de Profesores,” De Castro said. “Does that mean you are teaching in UST? No.”

Fr. Corominas did not reprimand Buencamino for speaking Spanish in class

In the film, there was a scene where Felipe Buencamino dropped Latin during canon law class and spoke Spanish instead.

The professor, Fr. Benito Corominas, O.P., was depicted as having been irked with Buencamino’s insolence, which amused and encouraged students, specifically Paciano.

However, in reality, it was quite the opposite: Corominas kept his peace and dismissed the Spanish response, which urged Buencamino and other students to move on with their agendas for reform.

According to the accounts of historian Manuel Artigas y Cuerva, after that particular class, Buencamino was by his classmates on their shoulders to his residence, while all shouted “Viva el Castellano y abajo el Latin,” which means “Long live Spanish and down with Latin.”

Buencamino later became a lawyer and diplomat and a member of the revolutionary cabinet of President Emilio Aguinaldo.

There are no records of Burgos being involved in Buencamino’s release

Some scholars and writers have suggested that Burgos pleaded for Buencamino’s release before the Spanish governor general since Buencamino led the Juventud Escolar Liberal.

This group of students, which called for academic reforms, were under the guidance of the Comite de Reformadores, a group of lawyers and professionals where Burgos was a member. 

Dominican historian Fr. Fidel Villarroel, however, asserted in his two-volume “A History of the University of Santo Tomas: Four Centuries of Higher Education in the Philippines, 1611-2011” that there was no evidence proving Burgos’s involvement in the release of Buencamino. 

Jesuit historian Fr. John Schumacher, S.J. also refuted this in “The Burgos Manifiesto: The Authentic Text and Its Genuine Author,” saying there was “no sign that Burgos had anywhere intervened in the case up to that point, despite unsupported imaginings of later writers.”

What was certain was that Buencamino had Burgos as one of his private tutors when the former pleaded to the UST rector, Fr. Domingo Treserra, O.P., to be permitted to catch up with the classes he had missed when he was in prison for four months.

Ex-UST rector Fr. Treserra was not a regular gambling companion of Zamora

Zamora was depicted in the film as regularly gambling over the card game panguingue. In fact, he was mistakenly implicated in the Cavite Mutiny because of a note confiscated from him that read: “Grand reunion … our friends are well provided with powder and ammunition,” which was actually an invitation to play cards. 

One of Zamora’s frequent gambling companions in the film was a priest by the name of Treserra, who, despite no explicit connection made in the movie, had the same last name as Fr. Domingo Treserra, O.P., who was UST rector at the time of the GomBurZa’s execution.  

De Castro said that if the film indeed referred to the former University rector, it was impossible for Treserra to leave his duties and play cards in secret without getting caught and punished by his Dominican superiors.  

“You mean to say that the rector will come from the University of Santo Tomas to Sta. Ana just to play panguingue regularly, and then he will not be reprimanded? I don’t think so. Imposibleng hindi malaman ng Order,” the history professor said.

Paciano and Jose Rizal did not witness the execution of GomBurZa

During the moving execution sequence of the “GomBurZa” film, a 10-year-old Jose Rizal, accompanied by his older brother, Paciano, was shown to have been present when the martyred priests were lined up for the garrote. 

However, when the trial for the Cavite Mutiny began, Paciano decided to drop out of law school and return to Calamba in Laguna to lie low in the eyes of Spanish authorities, considering his close ties with Burgos.

Because of fear of getting arrested, Paciano was not present during the execution of the martyr priests, and neither was the soon-to-be national hero. 

“They completely represented something which never happened,” De Castro said.

Hindi na-witness ni Rizal, as a 10-year-old kid, ang execution nina Gomes, Burgos, at Zamora. Even Paciano. It’s impossible; bakit? Kasi Paciano was actually trying to hide,” she added.

Still, the death of the GomBurZa priests left a significant impact on Jose Rizal that he dedicated his second novel, “El Filibusterismo,” to the memory of the three martyrs.

Over two decades later, the hero would also be executed in Bagumbayan, not far from the spot where the GomBurZa priests were strangled to their deaths. 

‘Conversation starter and good introduction’

According to De Castro, research is important, especially in doing films about key events or figures in history, which involves certain risks as “the director will always have to depend on his own knowledge of history.” 

Despite some historically inaccurate parts of the film, De Castro said “GomBurZa” was still a good introduction to the story of the martyred priests, which is often glossed over in basic education history lessons.

“It starts a conversation, especially in a country that is so notoriously lacking historical awareness,” the history professor said. 

“This is a good way to start a conversation and to make people interested in history, especially because the Cavite Mutiny and the subsequent arrest, trial and execution of Gomes, Burgos, and Zamora is considered the turning point in the development of Filipino national consciousness,” she added. With reports from Janica Kate J. Buan and Fernando Pierre Marcel B. de la Cruz

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