Unlike most superstars, Angelina Jolie regularly walks into refugee camps and spends face time with war victims, hearing their stories and trying to puzzle out the mystery of man’s inhumanity to man.
Over the last few years, she has quietly brought what she’s learned to the big screen, and her blockbuster fairy-tale, “Maleficent,” is part of it.
While we in America bicker about shades of feminism, the definition of bigotry, the limits of faith, and degrees of free speech—all important topics—Jolie has walked further down that road, exploring what brings a person to a concentration camp or killing field.
“Maleficent,” a reworking of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” from the perspective of the titular evil fairy, surprised everyone.
Most expected it to be an apology for the villain, along the lines of “Shrek” or “Wicked.”
Those stories make the case that the villain is simply misunderstood. They argue that the euro-centric, patriarchal, cisnormative, everything-normative world has gone crazy and the sane ones are those who buck the system.
But “Maleficent” is something very different. Critics walked out of “Maleficent” shaking their heads. They expected irony, delicious irony, sticking it to the status quo, but instead, they saw a sweet and sincere story of evil-doing and repentance.
When Ordinary People Do Evil
It’s no accident that Jolie’s first appearance in front of the camera since 2010, and a film which likely would not happened without her championship, echoes the themes of her directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” (2011).
“In the Land of Blood and Honey” tells an ambitious and brutal love story set in the midst of the ethnic cleansing 1994’s Bosnian War.
Just before the war, an ordinary Serbian soldier boy flirts with a pretty Bosnian girl in a nightclub. The next time they see each other, his army unit has swept her from her home as they try to rid the country of Bosnians. Because she is pretty, she escapes a bullet to the head, only to be condemned to sexual slavery.
The soldier tries to protect her from the others in his unit, but his mixed loyalties and moral incoherence slowly transform him from a decent man into a war criminal.
The film is a meditation on what can make ordinary people do evil things.
As is “Maleficent.”
The Gift of Repentance
The Disney villain’s backstory starts with Maleficent, played by Jolie, as a kind, gentle, and innocent child utterly betrayed by a human being. Maleficent fights back, cursing her betrayer’s innocent newborn daughter with a death-like sleep .
Then the story takes a turn.
As Maleficent watches the innocent but doomed princess, she comes to love the child she calls “beastie.”
She repents of her curse. She tries to change it, desperately tries to undo it. Finding the damage irrevocable, Maleficent feels the weight of her evil choice.
Only when she confesses her guilt, sincerely apologizes, and promises to spend her life trying to make up for it, do things change. She plants a sorrowful kiss on the sleeping girl. It is this kiss, this kiss of true love and devotion, of repentance and restitution, that breaks the spell and wakes the princess.
Jolie’s next film promises to keep the theme going.
“Unbroken,” which Jolie produced and directed, will come to theaters this Christmas. An adaptation of the bestselling nonfiction book about Louis Zamperini, it portrays an American prisoner of war who was horribly mistreated in Japanese camps but went on to speak powerfully of forgiveness, reconciliation, and faith.
Jolie is putting her considerable influence and fortune into movies about the depths to which ordinary people can sink and the ways in which they can be reconciled.
She is reframing the problem of evil outside our usual American battle lines. Evil cannot be simply explained away and excused by difficult circumstances, as liberals are eager to do. Nor can it be overcome merely by show of force, as some conservatives believe.
Instead, her films call people of all kinds to take responsibility for their evil deeds, to move beyond their righteous grievances, and to step into eternity, away from time’s endless cycle of vengeance and retribution.
Rebecca Cusey is a film critic. She lives near Washington DC with her family.