Covadonga still

How to respond to the darkness

Long Island filmmaker Sean Hartofilis’s production company is named for his mother’s family farm in Derry.

By Mike Houlihan

Way back in 718, an overwhelming army of Muslims ascended a mountain in Spain to kill the remaining Christians hiding on the Iberian Peninsula. But the Christians, led by a man named Pelayo, implored and prayed to the Blessed Mother to come down and intercede for them.

She did. And there, at Covadonga, meaning “Cavern of the Lady”, a shower of rocks rained down on the Muslim invaders entering the caves, and Pelayo and his warriors rushed out of their hiding places and slaughtered the Moors. “Covadonga became the symbol of Christian resistance to Islam and the eventual salvation of Spain,” according to historian Joseph O’Callaghan.

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“Covadonga” is also the title of our first film in this year’s 4th Annual Irish American Movie Hooley, screening in Chicago on Friday, Sept. 28. The film is written, directed, produced and stars New Yorker Sean Hartofilis. The story of Covadonga is told by the film’s main character, gabbling on about light overcoming darkness in a frenzy, as he torments his prisoner.

It’s scary. And so is this film.

“Covadonga” tells the tale of Martin Ravin, a widowed songwriter mourning the death of his wife, holed up in his secluded lake house, whose dark past plays macabre tricks on his mind, when a mysterious young couple trespass on his property. It’s a mind bender of a movie, a psychological twister that Irish American filmmaker Hartofilis calls, “a Gothic Irish folk thriller.”

The only Irish-American film in our annual trinity of Irish films, Hartofilis brings an interesting pedigree to the Hooley. “My mom is one of 10 from Derry. She’s the only one who came over. Most of my family is in Ireland, I grew up spending summers in Ireland, I go back as often as I can. I’ve got hundreds of cousins.” His production company, Walls Farm, is christened in honor of the family farm on Cole Hill in Derry.

Sean grew up in Long Island, played lacrosse at Princeton on their national championship teams, eventually playing professionally for the LA Riptide, while he pursued his film career on the West Coast.

A scene from “Covadonga.”

Last June, Sean and his three brothers were inducted together into the St. Anthony’s Friar Hall of Fame for their impressive athletic achievements at the prestigious Melville, N.Y., institution.

His dad is Greek, from Astoria, Queens, and the father and son share a nifty scene in the film, shot on a secluded, gorgeous Lake Wallenpaupack in Pennsylvania with only three other actors.

Sean proudly offers up his philosophy on the film, “The cycle of life … ends in death and then rebirth. Darkness is inevitable, pain is inevitable on this planet, so what I try to ask is, ‘how do we respond to it?’, because that determines the world we live in. You know we can either create light or we can be consumed by the darkness. So I’m always trying to answer that. That’s kinda what I believe.”

Covadonga is Sean’s second feature film. His first film, which he wrote, directed and raised $400,000 to produce, was a coming of age comedy, “Beach Pillows.” This film, “Covadonga,” cost $40,000. “I don’t mind telling people, because it can be done.”

It can indeed and the lean and mean quality of the script, cast, and location make for a very taut thriller on an indie budget. He obviously learned a lot on his first film and took those lessons to heart on his second.

Historians call the Battle of Covadonga, exactly 1,300 years ago, the “mustard seed” that liberated Spanish Christians from Islamic rule. It might also be said that “Covadonga” the film is the mustard seed that launches the future career of a brilliant young Irish-American filmmaker, Sean Hartofilis.

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