2009 // USA // Don Argott // March 25, 2010 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Theaters Tivoli Theater)
B - Narrowness of scope serves The Art of the Steal well. While the film boasts the righteous outrage of a more sweeping polemic such as Food, Inc., director Don Argott approaches his subject--the legal looting of the priceless Albert Barnes art collection by Philadelphia's political and cultural elite--as an act of slow-motion theft. Accordingly, the film has the feel of a heist documentary stood on its head, detailing how one man's bequest to the world was systematically dismantled by those who object to his unconventional views on art. The film's uneven pacing and undistinguished style aren't especially bothersome when the story is this intrinsically compelling and passionately told. Argott frames his story as part Lear-like tragedy about the reaving of a legacy, and part exposé on the dastardly deeds of rapacious Philly blue-noses. It's fairly stunning that several of Argott's villains--a former head of the Barnes Foundation, former governor, and former attorney-general--were willing to appear in his film and smugly characterize the looting of the collection as a proud moment. These confessions only heighten the film's potent sense of loss, as does the reverential footage of Barnes' museum in both its early and final days.