Raised fists, tied hands, deferred hopes: ‘GomBurZa’ and the darkness of our time

'GomBurZa' movie poster

The film “GomBurZa” teaches us much about Philippine history, but it should also be appreciated as an expression of, and response to, our bleak political predicament. It is as much about 2022 as 1872. 

Just as 1872 saw the Spanish colonial state crack down on liberalism in the Philippines, so did 2022 witness the lopsided defeat of opposition figures representing the hopes for liberal reformism (and socialism to boot). Earlier, 2016 presided over the erosion of democracy that had been won anew in 1986.  

The resonances are strong, and “GomBurZa” teases the possibility of drawing parallels. The film invokes a narrative that starts in the 1840s and runs all the way to the 20th century. It shows in particular how the struggle of 1872 helped spark the Philippine Revolution in 1896. In so doing, it offers a certain historical logic: If a defeated movement culminated in a later triumph, the bitter setback of 2022 will lead to a major political breakthrough.


Foregrounding these connections is an expression of hope in the face of darkness, defeat, and disempowerment. 

Like Gomez, we weep over the budol-slash-bad luck that seems to have cursed Philippine history. Are we so malas as a people that despite our hopes for, and attempts at, change, we as a nation just can’t get over the hump? 

Many of our problems remain so intractable that anyone can feel justifiably helpless, cynical, and powerless. Darkness pervades the film, sometimes literally so. Zamora sits in prison, catatonic and drooling, while Gomez ends up hoping that things will somehow, someway, turn out for the better. 

Like the onlookers at GomBurZa’s execution, many of us watch helplessly in the face of political odds. The dramatization of the execution sequence exudes an air of resignation, with the camera quietly following the priests at every step as they are calmly led to their deaths. 

This passivity is punctured, albeit briefly, when the crowd professes the priests’ innocence. Burgos is also made to raise his fists. But this otherwise inspiring gesture of defiance is undercut by the fact that his hands are tied. Earlier, he advises the liberal student movement to take it easy. At one point, he reiterates that he is (only) a liberal, not a radical.  

Safer, tamer, and politically modest, he is a hero who incarnates our dashed hopes, and represents an understandable trimming of our political sails. He exemplifies our dire predicament, both as the innocent victim of state power, unjustly arrested and killed, and as the scaling-down of social aspirations in an inopportune time.


But “GomBurZa” offers the consolatory certainty of a better future. In connecting 1872 to 1896, the film somewhat takes out the sting of bitter defeat, and gives us some reason to hope. Throughout the execution sequence, “GomBurZa” has a young José Rizal inquiring about the proceedings. It also vindicates Gomez’s faith that the priests’ deaths will help spark social change. The Katipunan and the Philippine Revolution, we are shown, will take place just 20 or so years later. 

But the link between 1872 and 1896 reassures us only because hindsight is 20/20. We already know the Philippine Revolution will happen. But the three priests did not have that luxury, and went to their deaths in despair. 

Like them, we are in the dark, not knowing when a bright future will come, if it will come at all. But if 1872 had 1896, will our 2022 defeat, if not our current efforts, lead to our own 1896?  The next José Rizal may already be among us, quietly observing but starting his/her political awakening. The next Bonifacio could be just around the corner. Perhaps something else is in store for us.  

Is “GomBurZa” then an implicit call to keep the faith? 

Clenching our hands into fists even when they are tied. Trusting in fate. Hoping for the best. Perhaps I am projecting, but the film attests to how grim our political situation has grown, which has shaken our morale, blunted our response, and left us deeply uncertain. For sure, this is not the best we can do, and that is perfectly understandable. 

We’ve endured many disappointments for so long that we have less reason to hope, especially not when the historical odds seem to be stacked against us. How long shall we keep hoping, waiting? We can only do so much and so little when our hands are tied, even while many of us press on, bravely and admirably. 

That “GomBurZa” reflects our grim circumstances does not detract from its multiple merits and much-deserved accolades. On the contrary, understanding it as a product of an inauspicious time can help us appreciate it more, and not just as a popular film that enriches our understanding of Philippine history and identity. 

“GomBurZa” can inspire our sense of nationalism, but it also offers a sobering portrait of our times, a reminder of the political odds that are so ever not in our favor. It is from this unflinching realism that we should (continue to) press on. At this point, there’s really nowhere else to go but up. 

It may just take a while. 

Janus Issac V. Nolasco works in the publications unit of the Center for Integrative and Development Studies, University of the Philippines and is deputy editor in chief of the Philippine Journal of Public Policy. Trained in area studies and literary criticism, he has also penned peer-reviewed content on the Filipino romance film, and on the Filipino family film.

Read more: ‘Gomburza’ gets to the big screen

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