Sundance 2017: “Carpinteros” Ushers Neo-Dominican Film Into the American Arthouse

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Directed, Written, and Executive-Produced by: José María Cabral
Starring: Jean Jean, Judith Rodriguez Perez, Ramón Emilio Candelario
Produced by: Maria Jose Ripoll
Cinematography by: Hernan Herrera
Music by: Freddy Ginebra
Edited by: José María Cabral
Running Time (in min.): 108 minutes

Official Selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival – World Cinema Dramatic Competition

*****

The Najayo Prison in San Cristobal, the setting for writer/director José María Cabral’s new drama Carpinteros, is a spectral and sickening space for a love story. Stuffed to the brim with Dominican men and women enduring various methods of abuse and daily humiliation, the prison is a purgatorial gateway – often inviting low-level criminals into the depths of organized-crime hell. Ezra Fieser of Reuters once described it as “long a symbol of the overcrowding and corruption that plagues Latin American jails,” far closer in art director Eumir Sanchez’s depiction to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary than to the artfully-designed modernist shitscape in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. Yet in this claustrophobic, frantic fictionalization of a mass escape attempt in 2014, we are asked to believe a relationship of real passion and profound responsibility can spring up between two prisoners like a rose in cracked concrete.

The insouciant optimism in Cabral’s script (the Dominican-born wunderkind also edited and executive-produced) gives this feature a Romanticist weight that skirts the line between beautiful and naïve. Our star-crossed lovers, ponytail master Julian (played by the superheroically well-named Jean Jean) and the intense Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez, powerful), meet in a curious way: through an invented sign language used to pass along brief messages between male and female sections at Najayo. Known as “peckering,” – hence the film’s English title, Woodpeckers – this ingenious method pisses off the guards, and must be done both secretly and quickly. For self-protection, it is Yanelly’s maniacal “boyfriend” Manaury (a frightening but fantastic Ramón Emilio Candelario), a vicious contraband dealer, who asks Julian to “chat” with the curly-coifed redhead (Perez) in the adjacent prison yard. Predictably, Julian and Yanelly get to peckering so frequently and so intimately that Manaury becomes completely unhinged with jealousy.

Although Cabral is not trying for Shakespearean melodrama, the sincerity and vitality in their love affair comes as a surprise following, as it does, the film’s brutal first act. In the exemplary twenty minutes that opens Carpinteros, Cabral, cinematographer Hernan Herrera, and art director Sanchez set up a world filled with visual juxtapositions: between natural outdoor lighting and dingy cellblocks; cramped medium-close-ups within the jail and expansive telephoto long shots of the outside yard; the quiet, cat-like Julian versus the bullish, hostile guards and prisoners like Manaury. Within the first few scenes, Najayo becomes as iconic a site of roiling, venomous danger as Guantanamo, an ersatz edifice of justice and civility crumbling under psycho-physical violence. The visual scheme chosen by Cabral’s crew becomes a political one here, allowing the filmmakers both to depict and to evaluate the state of the correctional system in contemporary Dominican Republic. This is appropriate, given that our young director has become associated with a growing generation of New Dominican filmmakers who – like all so-called “new” waves of conscious auteurs from Romania to Congo to Chile – aim to speak on behalf of their environments, rather than simply about them.

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Perhaps it is for this reason that, in Julian’s situation, we sense foul play on someone else’s account resulted in his incarceration; and following that discovery, we expect a film about his resilience in the face of certain harm. But rather than present a grand depiction of escape, or perhaps of a tense circumstantial friendship between two male prisoners, Shawshank Redemption-style, Cabral’s script pivots in the second act on the burgeoning infatuation between Yanelly and Julian.

Whether this maneuver derails the film or grounds its arthouse-friendly instincts, I’m still uncertain; the only thing that holds true in my memory is that Jean and Rodriguez Perez portray the would-be lovers with hostile playfulness, like when one pulls yarn away from a cat. Lust is immediately apparent when they first “pecker” – though all the women prisoners have peckers-in-crime, Yanelly has a history of moving particularly quickly through the men – and within a few scenes, underpants are being subversively exchanged. Manaury’s angry assaults only seem to encourage the stoic Julian, despite his ability to stay under-the-radar of the guards. By the time of the colossal escape attempt (which in real life left multiple guards and prisoners dead) and the final showdown between Jean, Rodriguez Perez, and Candelario, Carpinteros has veered far closer to Fatal Attraction than to any prison-set film before it.

Ultimately, this shift from sociopolitical humanist docudrama to histrionic romance is a subtle and unexpected change in tone that proved intoxicating during its World Premiere this week at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No doubt remains that Cabral, whose Dominican-made film is the first of its kind to premiere at the festival, handled this upsetting and timely tale with similar skill to those, like Darabont or Audiard, whose earlier works set the standard for this story’s success.

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