Movie, Reviews

“Woodpeckers” a Strange Romance

One of the most powerful foreign films this year, Woodpeckers makes its debut in the United States. The prison drama, based on true events, takes a cool twist that leads to a strange romance with a little comedy thrown in for good measure. Direction, cinematography and acting combine to make the flick a must watch for film buffs and art house movie fans.

Julian Sosa (Jean Jean) finds himself on the way to prison after committing one crime too many. It’s not just any prison, it’s in the Dominican Republic where crime has been rampant filling the jails beyond capacity. New cons are called fish and don’t have the luxury of a cell as they are taken by the toughest and notorious. Being forced to sleep in halls, the inmates look for ways to bribe top convicts to get them a mat to sleep on.

Julian Sosa (Jean Jean) and Manaury (Ramón Emilio Candelario) share a joint in WOODPECKERS

The only way to survive is to become a lackey for inmates who can pull strings inside the lockup. Hustler Bolo introduces Julian to Vlady and accepts his cash for some privacy and a mat. One day following a knife fight, Julian gets to meet Manaury (Ramón Emilio Candelario), a tough con who takes him under his wing. Trusting him, he asks Julian to contact his girlfriend Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez) in the women’s Jail on the far side of the prison grounds. Separated by fences the male cons use hand signals called “woodpeckering” to contact the women in their yards.

So begins a prison relationship between Julian, Yanelly and Manaury that’s doomed to failure. The script takes several twists and turns putting the three cons in danger with the guards since “woodpeckering” is against the rules. Julian knows Manaury’s power within the prison and can gain a lot by helping him so he’s cautious about what he says to Yanelly. When Yanelly starts to realize that Julian may be a better relationship for her, things start to get complicated.

Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez) gets angry during a confrontation in the yard in WOODPECKERS

Director Jose Maria Cabral digs deep and comes up with a prison flick that gets a little wacky before turning cruel and confrontational. His cast is rich in character bringing to life the swarthy inmates with violent attitudes. He sets his audience up for a brilliant finale that you can “almost” see coming. You may have watched many prison films before this one, but inside the Dominican jail it’s a very different story.

Cabral adds just the right amount of comedy to settle his audience before more violence begins. I like the idea of the woodpeckers who are at their best communicating with the women in the yards long distance. Waving arms and giving signals much like football referees letting the announcer’s booth know what penalty has been called during a game. In this case however, most of the language is off color so you can imagine how funny it looks. Sometimes it even gets out of control leading to confrontations on both sides of the fences.

Julian Sosa (Jean Jean) and Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez) meet face to face for the first time in WOODPECKERS

Giving very good performances Jean Jean as Julian and Judith Rodriguez Perez as Yanelly are excellent in their roles. Both are hardened criminals who can be cruel and show it in confrontations with other inmates. I like Jean’s screen presence. He’s tough looking, yet has a likeable side that you root for as Julian. He can be a lackey easily enough, but even the guy he works for better watch his back.

Perez really turns on the charm as Yanelly, but she can be a tough cookie not backing down when she’s confronted by other yard mates. In an instant following a fight with a female over a woodpecker incident, she’s all sweet and friendly with the convict who’s waving his arms a 100 yards away.

Woodpeckers has not been rated by the MPAA, but contains language, nudity, violence and drug use. The film is shown in Dominican Spanish with English subtitles.

FINAL ANALYSIS:  One of the better foreign films to be released this year. 

Additional Film Information:
Cast: Jean Jean, Ramón Emilio Candelario and Judith Rodríguez
Directed By: Jose Maria Cabral
Genre: Drama, Foreign, Dominican Republic
MPAA Rating: Not Rated, contains language, nudity, violence, drug use
Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.
Release Date: September 15, 2017
Distributed by: Outsider Releasing

The comments within this review are the critic’s expressed opinions.

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Film Editor John Delia has been on all sides of the movie business from publications to film making. He has worked as a film critic with ACED Magazine for more than 12 years and earned a Bachelors degree in communications from the University of Florida. John is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association. Follow John on Twitter @staragent1 or send John a message at