Prison movies — even prison movies shot in real prisons with actual prisoners — are no novelty anymore, and haven’t been for a long time. But Jose Maria Cabral’s “Carpinteros” does come up with an interesting hook based on an actual custom at the Dominican Republic facility where it was shot: It chronicles a fictional heterosexual romance between convicts at adjacent male and female institutions, one lived almost entirely long-distance through elaborate sign-language communication. (The title, which translates as “Woodpeckers,” comes from male prisoners’ practice of perching on windowsills and “pecking” messages with their hands to women several hundred feet away.)
It’s a conceit interesting enough to give the writer-director a leg up in drawing audiences into an inherently unlikely love story. Cabral’s debut film, “Check Mate,” was his country’s 2012 Oscar submission for foreign-language film. But while “Carpinteros” is strong enough in atmosphere and assembly, it’s limited by characters who aren’t developed with great complexity, and a climax that pours on a little too much credulity-stretching hyperbole. The result is a drama that, while OK, falls short of being truly memorable.
We learn very little about lanky, bearded new fish Julian (Jean Jean) save that he’s been incarcerated for robbery (though he hasn’t actually been sentenced yet), and has some money to make his time at Najayo Prison a little better. That’s fortunate, because sans cash, prisoners are left to sleep on a corridor floor, among other hardships. Julian soon forges an uneasy alliance, exchanging favors with musclebound, hot-tempered fixer Manaury (Ramon Emilio Candelario).
When Manaury is moved to another unit as punishment for fighting, he can no longer communicate visually with his girlfriend in the female prison next door, red-haired live-wire Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez). But Julian can, so Manuary arm-twists him into learning “pecker-talking” — a system not unlike sign languages for the deaf, albeit much more improvised — so that Julian can relay Manuary’s messages to her.
Yanelly doesn’t really want to hear from Manuary, however, because when she was last stuck in solitary — she, too, is inclined to fly off the handle and pick fights — Manaury “cheated” on her by flirting long-distance with another female inmate. In fact, now she’s more interested in Julian. A couple of strokes of good luck (plus some scheming) soon enable Julian and Yanelly to have more up-close contact, starting with a first kiss. But Manaury is the violently jealous type, and his worst suspicions are confirmed when the other two make goo-goo eyes at each other onstage during an ersatz inmate talent show they’ve finagled their way into.
The film’s last half hour sees one protagonist released from prison, while the others are penalized for various violations by being transferred to a prison that so overcrowded, chaotic, and perilous that it makes the unpleasant-enough Najayo look civilized by comparison. In this lawless new hell-hole, a bloody conclusion for all concerned seems almost unavoidable.
There’s not as much suspense built toward that denouement as there should be, with Cabral’s screenplay pulling too many strings to enable characters under considerable restraint to rendezvous nonetheless. Nor does he quite achieve the tragic heft aimed for: While Julian and Yanelly are well played, he comes off as too emotionally guarded, and she as too hot-tempered, for us to swallow that they’re truly soulmates, or would even survive more than a couple weeks’ shared liberty without constant strife. (Candelario’s role is somewhat one-note, but his is the most compelling presence here.) While “Carpinteros” moves at a brisk pace, it’s long enough to afford room for more character depth and subplots (of which there really aren’t any).
Still, the what’s on offer goes a long way, as Hernan Herrera’s very-wide-format lensing snakes around cluttered prison environs that seethe in ways both threatening and simply boisterous. (La Victoria, where the last section was shot, has nearly four times the population it was designed for.) Apart from the major speaking roles, actual prisoners and guards comprise the cast — you can tell, because they have a hard time not glancing at the camera during the more elaborate traveling shots. Freddy Arturo Ginebra contributes a percussive score that could have been utilized more extensively.