The Penitentes of New Mexico are a Catholic lay fraternity, a brotherhood of community-minded, religious men. Before enrolling in one of my current courses at UNM, New Mexico Religious Rituals, taught by santero, archaeologist, and Penitente Charles M. Carrillo, the only thing I knew about the brotherhood was its members’ devotion to practicing penance via self-flagellation.
The history of the New Mexican Penitentes — also known as Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno — is far more nuanced and less sensational than its representations in popular culture. The brotherhood’s faith and community involvement is well documented. For example, during New Mexico’s incarnation as New Spain, the brotherhood cared for widows and orphans and provided spiritual nourishment to a people in the midst of a massive priest shortage.
Documentation of Penitente ceremony notoriously birthed The Lash of the Penitentes, a mash-up of mondo-doc footage by Roland Price and a sexploitation storyline courtesy of producer Harry Revier.
According to Turner Classic Movies: “This film is based on the real-life murder of Carl Taylor, a magazine writer who was killed in New Mexico by his houseboy, Modesto Trujillo, on February 6, 1936 while he was researching the Penitentes. Contemporary sources indicate that prior to Taylor’s murder, Roland Price, who was known as The Vagabond Cameraman, photographed scenes of the Penitentes’ rites. After Taylor was killed, producer Harry Revier shot additional story footage in February 1936 to incorporate Price’s sequences. A March 7, 1936 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that while several major studios were attempting to bring to the screen a picture written around the recent highly publicized slaying of Taylor, Revier’s film was already ready for release. The film, which at this time was called The Penitente Murder Case, was reviewed and rejected by the Hays Office. According to the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the picture was rejected because of ‘scenes of excessive brutality and gruesomeness,’ and because of the nudity of the character Raquel and the violence directed against her. The Hays Office also noted: ‘There is about the picture too, a curious flavor which is likely to give serious offense to religious people who hold in reverence religious practices dealing with the death of Christ. It is not unlikely that such people might look upon your picture as a travesty on religion.’ Despite Revier’s numerous attempts to re-edit and rename the picture (it apparently was also shown as Written in Blood and The Naked Truth), the Hays Office refused to give it a certificate of approval.”
I haven’t seen the film in its entirety, but judging from the trailer, while some of the imagery is genuine, the portrayal of Penitente ritual is wildly inaccurate and sensational. Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate that this film has been lost to the public domain. According to Grindhouse Cinema Database, the film is generally considered lost and notes that, “heavy editing of the prints even resulted in a 35-minute version that has no scenes featuring DeForest. This version, featuring Joseph Swickard, is known to be the version that’s mainly available on VHS today.” Watch the trailer for the uncut version of the film below: