In the Dominican Republic, men and women inmates in adjoining prisons communicate with sign language, known as woodpecking. This is the only opportunity for connection between the sexes.
Working from that reality, the filmmakers devised this story of star-crossed love.
The film opens by taking us into Najayo Prison in Santo Domingo with Julián, a newbie or fish in prison argot. Julián is a calm and cool character who adjusts quickly. He uses the money he brought with him (apparently intake officers didn’t search his pockets) to find a mattress and avoid sleeping on a hallway floor. He swipes another prisoner’s cellphone, and he affiliates himself with Manaury, a well-connected insider with anger management issues.
When Manaury is transferred to a different prison for fighting, he deputizes Julián to keep in touch — by pecking — with Yanelly, Manaury’s girlfriend in the women’s prison yard.
Yanelly is a hotheaded woman who is already angry with Manaury. She decides she prefers Julián, and the two flirt and contrive opportunities to meet, briefly, in person. It’s difficult to imagine these two characters falling in love in ordinary circumstances, but life in prison is not ordinary.
Over time, predictable tensions arise. Unfortunately, the film’s amped-up third act comes together in an awkward and not particularly credible sequence of events.
The exotic location of the movie — a real prison with inmates and guards as extras — adds authenticity but is underrealized. There is only a cursory exploration of the social hierarchy among prisoners and less interaction between prisoners and guards. Julián’s mixed-Haitian parentage, we learn, may earn him the disdain of other prisoners, but the idea is not pursued. (In fact, four Haitians died in a prison riot in the country a couple months after Woodpeckers was screened at Sundance.)
Those quibbles aside, the film is interesting. Not many movies from the Dominican Republic end up in our theaters, and you might want to take a look.