Mon September 25, 7:30 PM
Love can spring up in the most unlikely places, and the new film Woodpeckers (Carpinteros) tells one such tale of illicit and slow-boil attraction. Dreadlocked and handsome Dominican-Haitian Julián (actor Jean Jean in a breakout role) begins a jail sentence for petty theft inside the notorious Najayo prison just outside Santo Domingo. While navigating the indignities, corruption and everyday violence from both guards and fellow inmates, he becomes immersed in the system of "Woodpecking," the unique sign language the male prisoners use to communicate with women in the adjacent penitentiary just over 400 feet away. Standing in windows or out in prison yards, love - and heated liaisons - blossom. Julián's entanglement with one female inmate, Yanelly (the astonishing Dominican actress Judith Rodriguez Perez), is the fuse that ignites the events of Woodpeckers, which was shot on location at the actual prison using real inmates for all but the lead roles. Director José María Cabral, whose previous work was the Dominican Republic's official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, delivers a knockout film, full of atmosphere, sexuality, and grit.
"What starts as an institutional romance quickly becomes something altogether different in Carpinteros (Woodpeckers), a drama-turned-prison thriller from the Dominican Republic that opens, like many a prison picture, with a gut punch. Julian (Jean Jean) arrives at the Najayo Prison finding himself hazed at every turn. To earn his keep he serves as a tradesman cooking and repairing equipment. For protection he links up with Manaury (Emilo Candelario) a jailhouse powerbroker that deals drugs right out of the kitchen supply cabinet. Manaury is in love with Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez), a prisoner in the women’s compound across the way; they exchange notes, pictures, and soiled panties through a complex system of smuggling as some craftsman are sent to work in the women’s area. The lovers communicate with each other through sign language, under the guard’s radar, trading glances, flirtations and vows once released. Manaury is on the outs with Yanelly, allegedly for flirting with other women while she was in solitary confinement, forcing Julian to work to smooth things over. Filmed on location in the actual Najayo Prison and lensed in ultra wide-screen by Hernan Herrera, the film springs to life with immediacy and bursts of energy, although it’s not quite as successful as David Mackenzie’s Starred Up in terms of its unease. For much of the second act, the Jose Maria Cabral-directed drama feels like a high school romance where parting glances evoke desires and one runs the risk of getting in trouble for passing a note. Institutions reap institutional behavior and this prison is no different: the gangs have their place along with the women and the only time they seem to meet is in music class. The desire becomes physical when Julian is dispatched to fix a faulty air conditioner in the women’s prison and is able to steal a kiss while Yanelly’s girls create a small distraction. Yanelly is soon reprimanded for participating in what officials call “pecker talk” with the men on the other side. She will soon be out and free to do what she wishes once her divorce is settled. Her plans include being with Julian, Mananury be damned. Carpinteros’ third act, as exhilarating as its build is, seems to abandon the social realism at the core of the picture, falling back on tired and true genre storytelling that feels like a mismatch between the film’s opening sequences. Where Carpinteros works is in its exploration of desire from afar as a passing glance can make one’s day. It’s enough to give you butterflies in your stomach but, like all things in prison life, there’s no certainty even on the most mundane days." -John Fink, Sundance Review