Set in Athens during a time like ours, an outbreak causes the infected’s memory to be permanently erased. The first montage riffles through details from an apartment: a dress hanging outside a closet door, a series of empty rooms, then a man – our protagonist (Aris Servetalis) – slamming his head against a wall. The sound of his banging fills each scene until he sits alone in his darkened living room listening to “Scarborough Fair.” An announcement about the pandemic interrupts and seems to spur him to act. This tall, well-dressed man leaves his apartment and greets his neighbors with brief, polite exchanges. Once alone, a cloud covers his face again. He’s eventually diagnosed as one of the many memory impaired.

After admission to a neurological hospital’s Disturbed Memory Department, the man is classified as case 14842 and never named, because he has no identification. Later one patient gifts his apples to 14842 because he does not remember if he likes them or not. 14842 munches on them and discovers that the fruit improves memory. It’s here that we begin to wonder if he is truly affected by the disease or if he’s running away from a trauma in his past, à la “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). Servetalis conveys great pain and detachment in his sublime performance.

The film carries a dark sardonic edge. Christos Nikou (second unit director on Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth”) pokes fun by challenging the assumption that doctors should teach unidentified and unclaimed patients through the New Identity Program. Professional status does not equal good judgment. Mining personal, youthful memories to create assignments reflects good intentions, but not considering the effect on the patients or those around them suggests a lack of empathy. Some doctors even whimsically banter about providing the patients with Molotov cocktails.  

Most cinematic pandemics (“Blindness,” “Panic in the Streets”) are fraught with violence and melodrama. It’s less a mean streets here. 14842 receives clothes, money, and a furnished apartment, though he seems disappointed with his accommodations. With such a safe environment, a fresh start might be an appealing reason to fake amnesia. In their reeducation and reentry into society, the participants complete assignments given via audio cassette players and prove their work by taking selfies with Polaroid cameras – yup, that’s right, super old-school. 

Nikou’s use of outdated technology underscores how the patients are out of step with the unaffected part of society, which for the most part continues onward with little regard for the affected. The selfies evoke people documenting superficial lives on social media without enjoying the experience. 14842’s somber execution of absurd tasks provides comedic relief. At a strip club, he baffles strippers with his chaste request for them to stop gyrating and take a photo with him. The point of these assignments to have new experiences and create memories is lost on most patients.

The amnesiacs are childlike in their approach to new experiences and have little understanding of consequences and no fear. They are just excited to know how to drive, until a crash stops the car.   

In Nikou’s near-now, the rebirth of a new identity does not translate into a life free from emotional pain and loss. We ultimately learn the real source of 14842’s grief, and it makes his earlier answers to the diagnostic tests poignant in retrospect. Nikou leverages 14842’s journey to illustrate that there is joy in embracing immense personal, past anguish over impersonal collateral sorrow at the hands of acquaintances and strangers. Viewers may want to rewatch the film to appreciate all the clues leading up to the final reveal, and would be wise indulge that impulse. 

  • “Apples”  is at Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Kendall Square.