Set inside the notorious Najayo prison of San Cristobal, Dominican Republic—a place where the prisoners outnumber the guards roughly 266 to 1 and the right bribe can get you just about anything—Woodpeckers (Carpinteros) intimately follows Julián (Jean Jean), a petty criminal who falls under the tutelage of Manaury (Ramon Emilio Candelario), a cook with a temper and a need. Manaury is being moved to a remote quarter of the prison, which means he can no longer climb the cage that overlooks the all-women prison next door and communicate with his girlfriend, Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez).

To communicate, the male and female inmates have developed a highly sophisticated sign language called “pecking.” Banned from the cage, Manaury teaches Julián to peck on his behalf and relay messages to Yanelly.

Julián complies, and for a brief time, he is in good with both Manaury and Yanelly. But then Yanelly starts to fall for Julián, and the two conspire to make sure Manaury, a violent criminal with a mean streak, doesn’t find out.

Simply put, Woodpeckers is a miraculous film. Written and directed by José María Cabral, a 29-year-old with talent, Woodpeckers was shot on a tight budget in real prisons with real inmates and real guards as background and extras. But Cabral doesn’t let the docudrama aspect of Woodpeckers get in the way of his imagination—some scenes feel like they were lifted from a 1970s science-fiction film and made real. This allows Woodpeckers to move easily from comedy to romance, to a stunning musical performance where Julián and Yanelly flirt in the prison’s most public arena, to drama, and, finally, to the horror of a prison riot and the high cost of betrayal.

Drawing the audience in and helping us navigate these unfamiliar waters are the outstanding and naturalistic performances from Jean, Perez, and Candelario. Their faces guide us from pain and humiliation to redemption and purpose.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Woodpeckers / Carpinteros (2017)
Written and directed by José María Cabral
Produced by Maria Jose Ripoll
Starring: Jean Jean, Ramón Emilio Candelario, Judith Rodriguez Perez, Fernando De Jesús Mejía
Strand Releasing, Not rated, Running time 106 minutes, Premiered Jan. 23, 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival.

A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 7, “The power of the real.”