Psst. Hey kid. You ever do sign language in a Dominican prison?
As much as it sounds like a pick-up line delivered by the pilot in Airplane!, it’s also (more or less) the logline for Carpinteros (“woodpeckers”), a lean drama playing the World Dramatic competition at Sundance this week. It’d be nice if every foreign film we saw at a film festival was an absolute home run, something we could lavish with praise at every turn and shout about until it got enough buzz for a wider release, but the truth is, that usually doesn’t happen. A lot of the time you see movie that’s flawed but full of potential, and compelling if not quite a triumph. That’s certainly true of Carpinteros, which is interesting enough, but mostly serves as a showcase for the talents of writer/director Jose Maria Cabral and principal cast Jean Jean, Judith Rodriguez Perez, and Ramón Emilio Candelario.
The title refers to the practice of “pecker talk,” a kind of sign language allowing communication between inmates at adjacent men’s and women’s prison facilities in the Dominican Republic. The film, the entirety of which takes place inside prison walls, follows Julian (Jean Jean), from his first day of prison to his job relaying messages for tough-guy kitchen boss Manaury (Ramón Emilio Candelario), to his eventual affair with Manaury’s girl, conducted mostly via the aforementioned pecker talk — so named for the way the inmates have to sit on the windowsill straddling the bars, like woodpeckers on a tree. It’s all strange and unique and exotic, and not in a forced artsy way.
There’s an interesting story here, where the setting is more than just a cool hook. In one of my favorite books, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya Von Bremzen explains the way food took on outsize importance in an environment of lack. Carpinteros depicts a similar phenomenon, only with love/sex/companionship among prisoners. When you only see 10 people of the opposite sex per day, and from a distance of 100 yards, it makes sense that you could fall in love based solely on relaying messages to each other via sign language. Every interaction is amplified.
The trouble with Carpinteros is that it gets so caught up in the love triangle drama that it forgets that it’s a prison story, not a love story. The plot hinges on a romance between Julian and Yanelly (Maria Jose Ripoll), a character that consists mainly of reactions to how she’s treated by men. She’s clearly in love with this guy based on their shared predicament, but her feelings don’t seem to change along with the predicament. She gets wrapped up in Julian in a way that eventually stops being believable, such that the film’s action-packed finale isn’t nearly as entertaining as it thinks it is, or as the movie that came before.
It’s a movie that’s entertaining enough that I’m glad I saw, that I also wouldn’t grab you by the lapels to demand that you see. It’s the kind of movie you go to film festivals to see, but don’t necessarily remember afterwards.