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The Ritz of movie theaters

Welcome to Sao Paulo's ultra-luxe theater, where wine is served and the popcorn topping is truffle-infused olive oil.

Sao Paulo's Sala Cinemark Bradesco Prime. (Courtesy of the cinema)

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.