From an early age, Irene P. Eckert learned the importance of seeing the bigger picture.
In the late 1950s, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College against her immigrant mother’s wishes.
“We come from a very small town in Italy in Calabria,” Eckert says. “The role of a woman was at 17, 18 to get married and have children.”
Eckert did get married — to her college sweetheart, whom she met while a student at Hunter, where the she enrolled for $7.50 a semester. And they later had three children. But the pair divorced in 1970 — at a time when it was taboo.
It wasn’t until their children were grown that Eckert pursued her true passion: classic film studies. Eckert took courses on the subject at the New School in Greenwich Village and in the past decade has established herself as a film historian, presenting classic films to packed audiences at Huntington libraries, the Hutton House at C.W. Post and at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.
On Monday, Oct. 17, Eckert will screen “Divorce Italian Style” — a 1961 film that she can personally relate to — at Cinema Arts Centre in honor of Italian History Month.
ABOUT THE FILM
Directed by Pietro Germi, “Divorce Italian Style” is from the genre Commedia all’italiana or Italian-style comedy. It follows Ferdinando Cefalù, a married Sicilian man portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni who falls in love with his cousin at a time when divorce was illegal and who concocts a crime of passion to try to justify doing away with his wife.
“It makes fun of an institution such as divorce, certainly the church’s powerful influence,” says Eckert, now 85. “But also the Italians have a very strong connection to family cohesiveness. So it’s not only the church that pressed for no divorce.”
Monday’s event involves an introduction, a viewing of the film and a post-screening discussion of its cultural significance.
“If you really want to teach classes or groups of people about a certain culture, show them something visual,” Eckert says. “Either pictures or a film or a documentary. That would be a better input for them to see how people react or respond.”
Teaching comes naturally to Eckert. She taught social studies and psychology at Northport High School for 35 years and has two master’s degrees to her credit, including one in teacher education.
“Divorce Italian Style” won an Academy Award in 1963 for best writing, screenplay and story. It also won the heart of Eckert, who divorced in her 40s when her children were 13, 11 and 8. Eckert traveled to Mexico to get the divorce through a fraternity brother of her husband who acted as the attorney for both for less than $500. Divorcing in Mexico made the process smoother and affordable, Eckert says.
AN EARLY INTRODUCTION
When she was five years old, Eckert immigrated to the United States from Italy with her parents and had no knowledge of the American language.
“My mother was illiterate and she didn’t know her own language, let alone English,” Eckert says. “When I registered in Catholic school, they didn’t really take me at first.”
The nuns at the St. Rose of Lima School in Manhattan suggested that in addition to Eckert taking one-on-one English lessons in the afternoons until she knew enough to enroll full time, she should also make a habit of watching American films.
“So I started going to the movies on Saturday as part of my learning experience and I continued to do it almost through my adolescence, high school and college years, because I liked going,” Eckert says.
These days, Eckert even visits the theaters on weekdays.