One of the many perks to attending a big film festival is the chance to see foreign films that offer insight to an aspect of the world that you may never otherwise know exists. By introducing us to the surprisingly lax prison system in the Dominican Republic, Spanish-language ‘Carptineros’ (which translates to “Woodpeckers”) does just that.
The topic of prison rarely makes for an uplifting or enticing viewing experience, but ‘Carpinteros’ breaks the mold of what you might expect from a film that’s entirely set within a trio of prisons. It’s not the type of film that you look back on and think about the horrible atrocities that are typically portrayed as occurring within. Instead, I think of it as a love story – and a pleasantly strong one.
‘Carpinteros’ follows a new inmate named Julian (Jean Jean). Because the film wants us to focus on the character’s shell-shocked introduction to prison life, we’re never told exactly what landed him there. We know that it was minor enough that he’ll likely only be here for a few months, but that’s it.
Julian arrives and successfully flies beneath the radar. He doesn’t do anything to draw attention to himself, but he also makes it apparent that he can be useful to those with power. This works out well for him. He’s relatively safe and he has a place to sleep, which makes him better off than most.
When Manaury (Ramón Emilio Candelario), one of the hot-headed and powerful inmates, gets moved to a new cell block, he hires Julian to be a proxy “woodpecker” for him. Bordering the male prison is an all-female prison. From the barred windows of the higher floors, inmates can look down into the recreational area of the ladies’ prison. Using a made-up form of sign language, they communicate with the women and form relationships. Relationships with “girlfriends” are mutually exclusive, despite having no verbal communication or physical connection. Interestingly, despite that, the relationships can be firmly rooted. The act of signing to a girlfriend is known as “woodpeckering,” and those who do it are called woodpeckers.
Because Manaury is unable to communicate with his girlfriend Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez), a real firecracker of an inmate who’s nearly finished with her prison sentence, he hires Julian to pass messages along to her. Julian and Yanelly quickly form a relationship of their own. Jean and Rodriguez Perez are a perfect fit for their romantic roles. Despite having just a few minutes of actual screen time together, their chemistry is through the roof.
‘Carpinteros’ is a step above both most prison films and love stories, but it’s not perfect. As with most stories that revolve around love triangles, it stumbles into a few clichéd pitfalls. Towards the end, the film’s editing gets a bit sloppy. Its story is stretched a little too thin, making it feel longer than it actually is. Having said that, it’s still a great little film that’s well directed and very well acted.