By Woojung Kim, Contributing Writer
The Dominican Republic’s Oscar entry for foreign language film, “Woodpeckers,” directed by Jose Maria Cabral, is a story of love within the unconventional confines of a prison cell. Though “Woodpeckers” has its flaws, it is a charming film that presents the perseverance of love even under loveless circumstances.
The film follows the male protagonist Julian (Jean Jean), who is incarcerated in the infamous Najayo prison near Santo Domingo for a small robbery. “Woodpeckers” showcases him going through series of humiliation in order to adjust to such a brutal environment. Julian eventually adapts to the jail by exploiting bribery and forming precarious relationships with fellow inmates. As a result, he engages in an act called “woodpecking,” which the male prisoners use to communicate with the female prisoners across the yard. Julian utilizes this to interact with inmate Manaury’s (Ramon Emilio Candelario) girlfriend, Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez)–the female protagonist imprisoned in the Najayo prison–while Manaury is being held in solitary confinement.
“Woodpeckers” focuses on “pecking” which is demonstrated by the male prisoners clinging onto the barred windows, as woodpeckers would clasp to wood, and performing hand gestures to conduct relationships with the female prisoners.
Yanelly claims Manaury’s flirtation with another woman and rejects him. Instead, she shows interest in Julian and signals “You set me on fire.” Her interest stimulates the romantic, caring side of the reticent man. Afterwards, Julian schemes his way into the women’s prison and shares his first kiss with Yanelly. The tension of the film rises as Manaury finds out and rages about the forbidden love.
The film conveys the immensity of love by illustrating how love blooms despite the inadequate environment. It is colorfully edited and has a crude, yet delicate camera work, which gives the film a genuine nature. The extended shots in some scenes show the back or the side of a character’s profile, which allows the audience to view them through the perspective of a fellow inmate or guard. Due to its basis in reality, “Woodpeckers” has an intriguing motif and a unique atmosphere.
While the two main protagonists are drawn out exquisitely, the other characters suffer from lack of development. The film is also prolonged by trivial scenes and puts little emphasis on critical details at the beginning of the story, causing the climax to seem unnatural. The editing style of going back and forth between scenes of peace and violence is utilized to escalate tension. It can be compelling, but as it is repeated, it distracts.
Although “Woodpeckers” has imperfections, the alluring energy will certainly attract audiences and leave them with an intense empathy towards the protagonists.
“Woodpeckers” opened in New York theaters on Friday, Sep. 15.