Love Under Lockdown

woodpeckers-julian-yanelly

The first Dominican film to screen at Sundance (and recently announced as the Dominican Republic’s Academy Award submission for Best Foreign Language Film), Woodpeckers (Carpinteros) is not your typical prison drama. Sure, writer/director José Maria Cabral includes some familiar elements: the new guy initiated into the brutal, dehumanizing ways of the institution; an uneasy alliance formed with the cell block’s bully/fixer. But Woodpeckers, which was filmed on location in the notorious Najayo prison outside of Santo Domingo, is also a love story with a spectacular ending that is Shakespearean in its resolution. With its raw, authentic setting, which includes throngs of actual Najayo inmates, the film has a gritty, documentary feel that really gets under the skin. It’s easy to get caught up in its slowly intensifying narrative.

When petty thief Julián (Haitian actor/director Jean Jean, quietly riveting) is incarcerated, he notices his fellow inmates crowded around the prison windows, executing elaborate hand signals. Turns out they’re communicating with inhabitants of the neighboring women’s penitentiary, who signal back from their yard. Through this detailed language, known as “woodpecking,” romantic relationships are formed, as are jealousies and resentments as rivals fight over love interests. (The practice is completely true to life; Cabral spent ninth months visiting Najayo and other prisons, where he got to know the inmates.)

woodpeckers-julian-manauro

When the volatile Manaury (Ramón Emilio Candelario), who operates a drug ring out of the prison kitchen, gets into a knife fight over his inmate girlfriend Yanelly (the wonderfully expressive Judith Rodriguez Perez), he’s relocated to solitary in a neighboring complex. Enlisting Julián to be his intermediary, he teaches the newcomer woodpecking so that the latter can deliver Manaury’s impassioned missives to Yanelly.  She, however, suspects Manaury of infidelity and wants nothing more to do with him, instead becoming intrigued by his soulful messenger, whose feelings are mutual. This, of course, is a recipe for disaster.

Julián and Yanelly’s bond grows stronger when he visits the women’s prison on the pretense of repairing the warden’s air conditioner and the smitten couple share a kiss through the bars. Encouraged by Yanelly, he signs up for a music class, leading to a prison performance in which he plays percussion as she sings. When their onstage flirting spurs the enraged Manaury into action, the movie spirals into an inevitable final showdown. The film’s unforced pacing and escalating tension suck the viewer in, until we’re completely involved in the struggling couple’s plight.

woodpeckers-yanelly

Though its forbidden-love theme is classic, Woodpeckers is as much a unique romance as it is unusual prison drama, thanks to its engaging protagonists and true-life setting. Shot in sweaty, claustrophobic cells and in sun-baked yards teeming with inmates, the film looks and feels like the real deal. Suspenseful, romantic and erotic, Woodpeckers is a remarkable achievement.

Woodpeckers opens on Friday at AMC Empire 25, UA Kaufman Astoria Stadium 14 and Bronx Concourse Plaza.

Marina Zogbi