Review: 'Woodpeckers', Falling In Love With The Story

Woodpecker, the Dominican Republic's first film to screen at this years Sundance follows the story

of Julian, Jean Jean, who is sent to Najayo prison and while there develops a relationship with

another inmate from a nearby, women's prison named, Yanelly, Judith Rodriguez Perez. Where the

problems arise for both characters lies in the fact that Julian's whole reason for initial communication

with Yanelly started because Manaury, Ramon Emilio Candalerio, another more powerful inmate

within the same prison as Julian, recruits him to be the mediator between himself and his then

girlfriend, Yanelly, through the art of "Woodpecking." What is "woodpecking," you might ask?

According to the film, it is a form of sign language that is developed amongst the inmates as their

way of communicating with each other over distances where simply talking or even yelling wouldn't

suffice. The male inmates will perch themselves in the windows, grasping on to the rails that keep

them imprisoned, much like a woodpecker does to a tree after they drill a hole in it, in hopes of

communicating with their female counterparts.

The biggest thing that this film has going for it its story and the way that the director, Jose Maria

Cabral, has chosen to present it to us. The general plot itself is nothing new. On the one hand, it

centers around a love triangle between two men and one woman, but where this story separates itself

from others of the past is that it's all done with backdrop of prison life to add to the overall tension of

the film. There is another stereotypical sub-plot  that is also a part of the film about fresh meat

coming into new surroundings, and due to the need of survival, in this case both literally and socially,

joins forces and forms some sort of mutually beneficial relationship with someone that has a higher

ranking, status, and level of respect (or fear) amongst the population; a relationship, that by the story's

end inevitably turns sours due to various controllable and/or uncontrollable forces.

Where this film truly shines is in its authentic and raw portrayal of prison life in the Dominican

Republic, something that Cabral was extremely committed to. During an interview with Variety, he

commented about how his main guidelines for the film were "to be truthful to the prison [in order to

make]... the movie as raw as possible so that the audience [could] feel it was happening without any

type of manipulation." Real prison guards and inmates were used as extras for this film and Cabral

spent nine months before production researching and observing prison life, things that were  all

"crucial to the development of the story," and I must say that it paid off.

One of the first things that I noticed about this film was how along with the characters, even though I

wasn't physically with them in the same conditions, I still felt trapped and crowded in this huge,

yet isolating and humidity filled prison. I felt dirty. I felt the tension that where at any moment if

someone said or did the wrong thing would be broken by the onset of violence. I felt it all and

knowing that this was a deliberate choice makes me extremely pleased that not only was I able to

pick up on the  director's vision but that it was also, executed well.

The lack of character development, I would have to say is the film's biggest flaw. I know that besides

an accurate portrayal of prison life another deliberate choice that Cabral made was to not put too

much focus on to Julian and Yanelly's back story. So, I won't particularly dwell on that aspect of the

film because Cabral made it very clear that "their backstory wasn't that important." He wanted for

the viewer to "experience and discover [the characters] through their own personalities" instead of a

story that allows for us to pass judgement on them before we even get to really know them.

So, because I understand that artistic choice I'll turn my attention elsewhere. What I will say though

that while not giving a backstory was a conscious and meaningful choice, the lack of development for

the characters after we meet them is where the film falls short. There is no real growth with any of the

characters by the story's end and maybe that is more reflective for people that find themselves a part

of this cyclical reality, a kind of a lack of self-awareness and purposeful growth, but that lack of

development works against the characters because I found that I didn't really feel the love and passion

that was supposed to be there between Julian and Yanelly. Something was missing there that would

have allowed for the feelings that Cabral was going for to be apparent to the viewer. The ending, as

well, didn't really capture me in the way that I'm sure that the filmmakers had intended. It felt a bit

rushed and tacked on.

Though, this may be the case, I say all of this to say that I still enjoyed the film. The acting was

spot-on, the sign language, something that's integral to the film is something else that I enjoyed

watching and attempting to pick up on. I think this was a solid effort from everyone involved.

Woodpeckers opens in theaters September 15, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5