Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Woodpeckers is the sixth film by director José María Cabral and his second selected as the Dominican entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at next year’s Oscars, an impressive résumé for one so young.
The film opens inside a prison transport bus, the camera following new inmate Julian (Jean Jean) in long tracking shots as he submits to the intake process at Najayo Prison. With almost no delay he’s swept up into the shifting undercurrents of power and alliances that run through the incarcerated population. Most of the money Julian smuggled in secures him a place to sleep other than the floor, although the narrow pallet wedged into a cubby that he’s assigned doesn’t look much better. Then at dinner Manaury (Ramón Emilio Candelario), one of the inmates working in the kitchen, slips a baggy of drugs into Julian’s food. Intended as a bribe, Manaury leverages his “gift” and less-than-subtle threats to coerce Julian into sending messages to his girlfriend at the neighboring women’s facility.
This doesn’t involve an underground postal service, or trained cockroaches à la Orange is the New Black, though. A corridor at Najayo overlooks the women’s exercise yard and the prisoners have invented a sign language called “woodpecking” (a reference to how the men climb up and cling to the bars while they sign, as well as a couple more explicit double entendres) in order to communicate. Julian acts the diligent go-between for a time, yet when Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez) makes it clear she would rather get to know him than talk to the cheating Manaury, complications arise. In an environment where men can live and die by their reputations, the long-distance flirtation between Julian and Yanelly invites retribution from guards and fellow inmates alike.
If that all sounds a little melodramatic, that’s because it is. Particularly during the final act, when screenwriting serendipity piles on top of simmering emotions, the plot can stretch credulity. From start to finish, Woodpeckers remains a classic love triangle story at its core, although the prison setting and the performances by Cabral’s three leads help distinguish it from more clichéd contemporaries. As the ideal criminal to fall in love with, if such a person could exist, Jean Jean brings Julian to life with self-interested savviness and little affectation. Even as he builds relationships both personal and professional, he navigates Najayo with ghost-like solicitousness, careful not to get caught stepping on anyone’s toes. Except, of course, for those of the spurned Manaury, whose jealous histrionics are played with an appropriate touch of restraint by Candelario.
Ms. Perez is the standout amongst the three, however. Yanelly crackles with a prideful assurance cultivated well before her prison sentence and makes it clear to both men that her choices and her desires are what led to this romantic entanglement. Most of Woodpeckers takes place within the men’s prison yet by the end the focus has shifted squarely onto Yanelly, who has gradually transformed from distant love interest into a character in her own right.
The prison setting also helps to dilute the increasingly melodramatic tone. Its authenticity is beyond dispute: Woodpeckers was shot on location, using real inmates for every role except the leads. Perhaps knowing that ahead of time introduces a touch of bias, or maybe it just explains what one already finds onscreen. Even as the drama piles up, there’s an emotional honesty in the foundation that keeps Woodpeckers on level ground.