Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: José Maria Cabral
Written by: José Maria Cabral
Cast: Jean Jean, Ramón Emilio Candelario, Judith Rodriguez, Fenando Rodriguez de Jesus Maya, José Cruz
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/29/17
Opens: September 15, 2017
José Maria Cabral’s movie gives new meaning to the slang term “pecker,” and what’s more it even finds a sexually neutral use for the word “wood.” This is almost surprising given that the narrative film takes place exclusively in a large prison in the Dominican Republic, alternating machismo with romance in a wholly believable way and with the two principal lovebirds exuding quite a bit of chemistry for inmates with little physical contact. Since woodpeckers are known to peck-peck-peck their beaks into trees to gain footholds, “Woodpeckers” looks at men and women who are separated by fences and structures and who transcend the man-made “trees” to communicate with one another in sign language.
Cabral, previously known for documentary shorts and for the feature film “Detective Willy”—about a small-town Dominican cop with a love for noir film—stays with the country of his birth and one that he knows well enough to round up scores of actual prisoners as extras. The film crew, principally photographer Hernan Herrera, make their way safely through the twisted halls and corridors, their equipment presumably respected by some of the more violent men who make their home in the D.R. The riots, noise and mayhem come across with such authenticity that it’s difficult to believe that the chaos is not actually taking place.
Whether or not homosexual activity including rape takes place there is anybody’s guess since even Julian (Jean Jean) a newcomer considered a pretty-boy and a fish is not “courted” notwithstanding the absence of sex within the walls. Instead, Cabral’s script finds Julian bullied by Manaury (Ramón Emilio Canderlario) who shows him who’s boss. Manaury, who has been communicating with his sweetie Yanello (Judith Rodriguez) with sign language, climbing a wall like other men and pecking through an intricate vocabulary with their arms, to the women on a field some thirty yards away. When Manaury is transferred to another wing of the Najayo prison, he trusts Julian to continue to flirt in Manaury’s name, but when the obvious occurs—Yanello transfer her affections to Julian—Manuary is out for blood.
“Woodpeckers” exudes the usual atmosphere for prison movies—macho men, horny women, curt and pushy guards—but the pecking is quite the original concept. And it works. We can believe that both men and women learn complex hand signals, carrying on conversations with people they may never touch.
The usual flirtatious semiotics find women smuggling their panties to the boyfriends they’ve never met, and it’s no spoiler to state the obvious: Manaury discovers that his gal sent these unmentionables to Julian, resulting in lots of sparks, tensions, and a bruising climax as the men grapple with each other against the background of a full-scale riot.
Najayo prison in San Cristobál, Dominican Republic, was the scene of a riot in 2014 in which two guards and two inmates were killed. Yet despite its housing an overload of 2,000 convicts, mostly for drug trafficking, it is considered a model prison. The guards we see on the screen are assertive but not brutal, the men appearing to adjust to their imprisonment as they play basketball, work out on the chinning bars, get food (mostly beans) efficiently dished out which they eat in relative peace. “Woodpeckers” succeeds winningly given emotional performances by scores of extras as well as the principal trio, and might just make you wonder why society’s laws are too strict against non-violent drug pushers, failing in much the way that prohibiting alcohol (see “Boardwalk Empire” on Amazon video) did in our own lands.
Unrated. 109 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
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