This may sound like a corny reference, but one of the first things that came to mind while watching “Woodpeckers” was a line from the Rihanna song “We Found Love”. In it, she sings “we found love in a hopeless place”, a lyric that could easily have been the tagline for this unique romance drama directed by Jose Maria Cabral.
Indeed, there are few places that can feel as hopeless as a prison. Even worse, a prison that is so overcrowded that even having a basic bed is a luxury. Such is the reality facing Julián (Jean Jean) when he arrives at Najayo Prison in the Dominican Republic. As can be expected, this situation causes considerable tension among the inmates, who are forced to scramble for territory.
But there’s also a rare benefit to their incarceration at Najayo. Just a stone’s throw away is a women’s prison that is close to allowing communication through their fences. And even more unique is their method of communication. They call it “woodpecking,” a form of sign language widely spoken by the male and female inmates alike. As Julián settles in, he quickly learns this language as he is asked to deliver messages to Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez), the girlfriend of the intimidating Manaury (Ramón Emilio Candelario). But Julián and Yanelly begin to strike up a connection of their own, which could prove dangerous for them both.
As a love triangle develops from this unique premise, an amusing story unfolds that puts a new spin on both love stories and prison dramas. Cabral’s script brings out some delightful humor as Julián and Yanelly devise ways to meet without arousing suspicion from the guards and the possessive Manaury. And thanks to fine performances from Jean and Perez, their romance is endearing even though intimate contact is limited.
Admittedly, the subsequent betrayal and jealousy create a conflict that ultimately feels petty. In particular, Manaury’s actions start to feel increasingly nonsensical. But by associating the darker elements with bruised egos and unrequited love – rather than the violence typical of “hard-hitting” prison dramas – Cabral keeps the film focused on its inspired central premise.
Aside from the fascinating story, he also displays some impressive directorial flourishes. Indeed, there’s a memorable scene that seems to be paying homage to the long take cinematography and the percussive score of “Birdman”. The nifty camerawork is also notable for eschewing the “gritty” low-lit visual style one might expect, instead of going for vibrant colors that place the action firmly in the sunny Caribbean.
Indeed, “Woodpeckers” is a film that showcases an emerging talent that the Dominican Republic can be proud of. As their official Oscar entry, it’s sure to go down as one of the hidden gems from this year’s submissions. It’s the prison romance you never knew you needed.
“Woodpeckers” is the Dominican Republic’s submission for the 2017 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.