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In the Greek film 'Apples,' a mysterious condition leaves people without memories

Aris Servetalis plays a man who inexplicably loses his memory in <em>Apples. </em>
Courtesy of Cohen Media Group
Aris Servetalis plays a man who inexplicably loses his memory in Apples.

I first watched Apples about two years ago, several months into COVID lockdown. At the time, the movie felt eerily of the moment, since its story takes place during a pandemic. In this pandemic, however, people aren't spreading a deadly virus; they're inexplicably losing their memories.

We see this happen in the opening scenes, when an unnamed middle-aged man (played by Aris Servetalis) leaves his Athens apartment one day, gets on a bus and falls asleep. When he wakes up, he can no longer remember his name, where he lives or where he was going.

He isn't carrying any ID, and so he winds up in a hospital where doctors examine him and wait for family members or friends to come and identify him. But no one shows up, and so the man is enrolled in a government program designed to help him and the many others like him cope with their amnesia.

He's placed in an apartment and given money for expenses. Each day he plays a cassette tape — the movie seems to be taking place pre-internet — and listens to a voice assigning him a specific task like "ride a bicycle" or "go watch a horror movie," in hopes that these experiences will help jog his memory. He's instructed to take Polaroids of these experiences and keep them in a scrapbook, which comes to resemble an extremely analog Instagram account.

It all sounds bizarre on paper. But Apples, the first feature from the director and co-writer Christos Nikou, unfolds with an understated deadpan wit that makes even its weirder touches seem plausible, even logical. At times it reminded me of some of the brilliant absurdist satires, like Dogtooth and Attenberg, that have put Greek cinema on the map over the past two decades.

But Nikou has a gentler, more melancholy touch. The script leaves a lot to the imagination: We learn no more about the cause or the outcome of the pandemic than we do about the avian attacks in Hitchcock's The Birds. We also don't learn much about the main character's background; there are no flashbacks to his earlier life and there's no voiceover narration, either.

But while the character is quiet and emotionally reserved by nature, Servetalis, the actor playing him, is a mesmerizing screen presence. Sometimes Nikou shoots him in close-up, and sometimes from a distance, creating a ghostly, disorienting effect. You can't stop watching him, whether he's walking the streets of an eerily underpopulated Athens or slicing and eating apples, his favorite fruit.

At one point he befriends a woman, played by Sofia Georgovassili, who's also trying to recover her memory through the government program. An attraction forms, but then quickly dissipates; their amnesia is more of a hindrance than a bond. Without their memories and their identities, it's hard for these two lonely, drifting souls to get on the same wavelength.

Speaking of memory: Watching Apples for the second time in two years, I was startled by how vividly I remembered much of it. In particular, I haven't stopped mentally replaying one extraordinarily moving scene in which our hero goes to a crowded dance club and begins doing the twist, losing himself in the music and the moment. Is he suddenly remembering how he used to dance, or is he blissfully surrendering himself to his amnesia? It's not immediately clear, and it's also not the only such ambiguous moment.

At times, our hero seems to experience flashes of clarity. He remembers his old address. He recognizes a dog from his old neighborhood. Is his memory coming back? But if so, why doesn't he share this good news with anyone, almost as if he preferred to stay in the dark? Is there some other explanation for what's going on?

I won't give anything away, especially since I'm not entirely sure myself. But as it unfolds, Apples seems to become a story about romantic loss as well as memory loss. Sometimes it suggests a lower-key version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and like that tale of lost love, it asks whether some memories are best left forgotten.

As strange and singular as Apples is, its protagonist's condition hits on something universal. It's about how we deal with grief and loneliness, especially when memory becomes more of a curse than a blessing.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.