The Ritz of movie theaters

SAO PAULO — It’s been here for a year, I’ve lived here for nine months. It was about time. 

I mean, how long can you be a professional observer in one of the world’s most unequal countries and not go to the $25-a-seat movie theater that serves popcorn with truffle oil on the side?

In Sao Paulo, abject poverty and obscene wealth are never more than a short bus or BMW ride apart, but nowhere are the poor more invisible than in the Shopping Cidade Jardim. The mall was inaugurated last August as the ultra-luxe destination for the sliver of society not satisfied by regular-luxe. It has the first-ever branch locations of what many consider the city’s top Italian restaurant, Due Cuochi Cucina, and its insanely elite department store, Daslu. And so, so many ceiling fans.

But the dining and the shopping and the ceiling fans aren’t what most struck people’s fancy when the mall opened. It was the high-end movie theater, where a ticket on a weekend night goes for 46 Brazilian reais. That’s just over $24 at those theoretical exchange rates no ATM or credit card will ever give you, so call it $25 at best — compared to the $6 to $10 price tag of other Sao Paulo theaters.

Sala Cinemark Bradesco Prime, as the cinema is known, is actually a separate-and-unequal wing of a theater; in the cheaper half, the same movies sometimes play for half the price. In other words, it’s not like when you’re trapped in a ballpark and have to spend $5.95 on a hot dog or go hungry until the game is over. You must blatantly choose to spend a premium luxury.

Here’s what you get: a moderately chic, sofa-equipped pre-film lounge (please don’t call it a lobby); a snack bar whose leather-bound menus include a wine list; and two theaters with reclining brown leather seats, a monstrous screen and push buttons to call the server should you have forgotten to order, oh, say, a Bananas Foster dessert to accompany your Argentine sauvignon blanc. Needless to say, they’ll bring it right to your seat. Lest you can’t tell, I really hoped to hate the place. But it didn’t quite work out that way. First sign: in the lounge, I decided to question the suspiciously elite-looking De Almeida family, relaxing on the sofas before the film. But they did not ramble on about how many butlers they had or state their aversion to sharing a cinema with the halitosis-plagued middle class. In fact, they seemed a reasonable family with a reasonable rationale for shelling out a few extra bucks.

“We’re not concerned about the price as much as we are with the satisfaction of being well-attended to,” said Ronaldo de Almeida, the patriarch, who said he was 62 “well-lived” years old.

“From a cost-benefit point of view, it’s reasonable,” said Marcelo de Almeida, the 36-year-old son who is in technology sales.

“It’s about the comfort,” said Marcelo’s mother Lina.

“It’s an experience, not just a movie theater,” chimed in his wife Natalia.

They were disappointingly correct. When my friend Zack and I got to our expansive seats, he immediately kicked the seat into recline mode and put his feet up on the footrest. “This rocks,” he said. “I may never go back to doing movies as a normal guy again.”

I went to check out the menu, which despite a few extravagances (like the pricey Iranian pistachios) had utterly normal prices. Or, normally abnormal for a cinema: small popcorn about $3, large about $5, and the same price for the caramel version. Olive oil toppings, about $2.75. The cashier said the truffle oil was the most popular, but the wine section noted that the Chilean Punto Nino Carmenere I had my eye on ($14 for 250 milliliters) “harmonized” better with the four-pepper oil. So be it. My order was promptly delivered to seat C9, well before the movie began. The De Almeidas were the only others in the theater when we went in, but by the time the show started the theater was about half-full. The facade of exclusivity was somewhat shattered when two college students sat next to us; by virtue of their student IDs they had paid half-price. But once the lights dimmed, another advantage of 127 oversized, spread out leather seats became clear. The other patrons disappear completely from the experience — no heads blocking your view, no jostling for the armrest, no soda-slurping sounds within inches of your ears. Zack compared it to flying business class.

I, on the other hand, found it more like being at home. That is, if you have a comfortable leather recliner. If you have a 25-by-44 foot television screen. If you have access and ethics necessary to acquire first-rate pirated DVDs of first-run films. And if you have a spouse or friend (or butler) who is willing to uncork your wine, pop your popcorn, bring you your choice of olive oil toppings, and then clean up after you when the movie is over.