Madrid architect Daniel (Fernando Guilln Cuervo), like many of his more flamboyant, hard-hearted gay buddies, becomes besotted by the influx of comely, broke Bulgarian lads flooding Madrid. He takes up with one in particular, Kyril (Dritan Biba), who leads him on a merry chase, as he professes to be straight with a fiance back in Sofia, but is not averse to taking favors from interested gents.

Based on a novel by noted gay Spanish author Eduardo Mendicutti, Bulgarian Lovers has a verbal wit and tang to it, which set it quite above most gay film fare in literary terms. Leading man Cuervo also co-wrote the screen adaptation, and he brings an empathic warmth and humor to the protagonist. He often addresses the camera with a rueful sense of his own gullibility in his eternal, hopeless search for love, forcing the viewer into the position of not just confidante, but, more amusingly, a slightly disapproving duenna Daniel must always attempt to win over. Biba's Kyril simply oozes a wolverine machismo that rings an emotional death knell for so many gay men. It's that devastating combo of sexy indifference and bluff, sudden camaraderie tinged with the possibility of love which keeps Daniel simply coming back for more. Theirs is the kind of enticing, we've-got-a-secret relationship his friends can only cluck jealously over, while privately dreaming of the same for themselves. The clash of cultures between the louche, attractive, more primitive-seeming Eastern Europeans and their abject Spanish admirers, whom one would have thought were no slouches themselves in the lothario department, rings especially real and humorous. This is the kind of film you'd think Almodžvar might be making now, instead of his increasingly heterosexual forays; it's a lot more cohesive and logical than most of his work, while being every bit as much fun.

The Madrid depicted here by director Eloy de la Iglesia is a deliciously appealing gay wonderland of chic cafs, sympathetic-if-straight cabbies, and swank bathhouses, where the fun crowd disport themselves like modern-day male versions of Goya's famous naked majas.

-David Noh