If a local village warlord discovers he’s in a movie titled Goliath, he better watch his back. It doesn’t matter what his origin story is—and Poshaev (Daniyar Alshinov) has a bloody one—when power is never absolute. Yes, the villagers hail him as a hero for using his formidable presence to extort jobs for the community at a foreign investment firm’s tungsten mine. Yes, he works to keep drugs out of his domain by ruthlessly gunning down any rival gangs who dare to bring it across his borders. He’s still just a man, though. Still at the whims of those he trusts to stand by his side with guns in their hands. They’re the ones to worry about. They’re the ones with something to gain.
The first two-thirds of Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s film are interesting precisely because the man everyone fears might seek revenge (Poshaev murdered his estranged wife for ratting him out to the government) is the one person who neither cares nor has the means to try. Arzu (Berik Aytzhanov) is a nobody suffering from a bum leg and head contusion that have left him hobbled and stuttering. He hadn’t even seen his wife in two years after she left him with their daughter, so her being gone doesn’t necessarily change his day-to-day struggle. It’s why Poshaev spares him. Heck, he offers him a job to keep him close and comfortable. It’s everyone else that sees a threat. A threat they can exploit for their own potential upward mobility.
Things prove a bit monotonous as a result; Arzu must be incentivized. Being put on Poshaev’s radar means risking trouble as locals start becoming protective of their savior and members of Arzu’s family are put on the payroll. The simple life he lived with his daughter is made more and more complex as he’s forced to move homes and watch as greed places his loved ones in Poshaev’s crosshairs. Each step tightens the vise until vengeance starts to look like his only means for survival. What can he do to achieve it, though? Nothing without help. Is that what a corrupt police chief and Poshaev’s own men supply through whispers about assassination? No. Arzu must figure out how to use them like they hoped to use him.
While Yerzhanov doesn’t deliver anything we can’t already presume from the title alone, what he puts onscreen is compelling. A big part of that is Aytzhanov’s performance as Arzu. This is a man who simply wants to be left alone. He wants to live his quiet life and raise his daughter, giving what little money he does earn to his brother for letting them live with him. If not for his wife, he’d never have met Poshaev or vice-versa. One could argue that she is the one who’s dragged him into this nightmare simply by association. Now everyone—police, gangsters, imams, etc.—are telling him they “understand” his pain without ever letting him explain whether he feels any at all. And their assumptions ruin his life further.
As such, the “David” and “Goliath” characters of this story seemingly become devoid of autonomy. Their positions in this world (to be underestimated and feared respectively) have emboldened those around them to think they can mastermind their own ascension into power. Because Poshaev doesn’t think twice about Arzu; it’s the others who keep making a big deal whenever Arzu gets close. Poshaev’s men accuse him of having a “weapon” in the form of the knife with which he was carving toys. The townspeople accuse him of malice because they know they’d be enraged if their spouse was murdered. His revenge narrative is being externally written in a way that guarantees a climactic collision course they presume will be under their control. They’ve mistaken Arzu’s compliance for stupidity.
Yerzhanov ensures that we never do. We see that Arzu is tired and understands he’s being used as a piece on everyone else’s chess boards. And he sees them pulling those strings. It’s why he stays silent and, sometimes, plays dumb. Because he knows Poshaev isn’t the disease. He’s merely the top of a power vacuum that existed before he brutally entrenched himself there and will exist long after he’s gone. If Arzu took the advice of others and shot Poshaev dead, he’d be next. So he lets the world pile on and the tragedies compound. Arzu bides his time knowing he has the one card no one else does: he’s never shown an appetite for Poshaev’s throne. If anything, he’s fluffed the pillow.
The final act is thus obvious—not that Yerzhanov sought to hide anything, considering a second quote from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince all but explains what’s about to transpire. Just like we know David will slay the giant, Arzu is going to get his shot at Poshaev. The entertainment value arrives from how he secures it. Will he simply outsmart the others? Will he get Poshaev to unwittingly facilitate his own demise? Or will he become too comfortable with his own plan to realize his target is onto him? Goliath honestly works regardless of which man is left standing at the end. One colors the conclusion with relief, the other sorrow. At the end of the day, though, what’s really changed? Nothing. That’s tyranny’s unfortunate, inalienable truth.
Goliath world premiered in the Orizzonti Extra section of the Venice International Film Festival.