Sundance Review: 'Carpinteros,' Romeo and Juliet Behind Bars

The “woodpeckers” of José María Cabral’s feature from the Dominican Republic are inmates of the squalid, overcrowded Najayo prison, men communicating through an elaborate sign language with the inmates of the women’s wing. The men, from their upstairs perches, watch the women in a prison yard more than a 100 yards away.

Julián, a new prisoner, is a man perpetually in-between. He’s been brought in for so-called preventive detention, not yet incarceration. And though he’s been busted for robbery, he was only the getaway driver, making him a bit of an oddball amidst the established prisoners with tougher records and aspects. Further, he’s black, a man with roots in the Dominican, where he was born, but with Haitian blood that gives him a visible connection to the DR’s impoverished and derided neighbor. This outsiderness and his tall, slim stature, may make Julián wary and vigilant, but not overly cautious. As often happens in prison flicks, he and the viewers are quickly introduced to the hierarchies of Najayo by charismatic and potentially sympathetic operators, and then he’s off, hustling to befriend or serve a number of masters, to make this situation bearable for as it long it lasts.

And again he finds himself in the middle of things, as a carpintero go-between for an erratic tough guy, Manaury, and his equally explosive girlfriend Yanelly. After Manaury’s temper gets him relegated to another part of the prison, where he can’t communicate directly with his girl, he enlists Julián, clearly a clever student of “pecking,” to send Yanelly messages, requests for a phone call, a photo, her panties. It’s a delicate situation in a world of shifting allegiances, violent jealousy, and uncertainties about the future, but Julián, always impetuous, disregards all this, when Yanelly redirects her affections toward him.

If the flowering of this romance at a distance seems overly speedy, the deeply pressurized context of the prison mitigates our skepticism, as does the charm of the two leads, and the buoyant, vaguely Shakespearean feel of the situation—the window where Romeo pleads his case to Juliet is here ornamented with bars and chain link.

For much of the film, Cabral does a remarkable job managing his characters’ passions, orchestrating fleeting trysts and elaborate double-crosses that, if somewhat predictable, also feel right and true to the tale and its world. But the third act unravels in such a grand way, surrendering to all our worst impulses for closure and spectacle, trying too hard to knot every loose string, the viewer finds himself resisting, rewriting Carpinteros in his head, imagining how respecting the film’s wonderful, natural obstacles—the very nature of the prison and the system of pressures and inequities it represents, the volatility of its characters—could have produced a much more appropriate, fulfilling, and ambiguous end. The pleasures of Acts I and II are absolutely worth the watch, but stop thine eyes and ears, O Viewer, before the final deluge of improbable, Byzantine melodrama comes down. Then open up again for that amazing, if too preciously earned, final shot.

—Michael Mejia

Salt Lake Magazine
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