TORONTO - One of the unlikeliest stars of the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, under way this week, has been dead for more than half a century.

Albert C. Barnes, the famously eccentric Philadelphian whose eponymous institution in Lower Merion houses a jaw-dropping collection of post-Impressionist art, has been wowing festival-goers thanks to The Art of the Steal - a documentary about the Barnes Foundation and the storm of controversy surrounding its move to a site along Philadelphia's Museum Row.

The work of Philadelphia filmmaker Don Argott, The Art of the Steal won standing ovations at its two public screenings. Folks were turned away at press and industry screenings, and at least four distributors have made bids. (Whether and when it's seen in Philadelphia hinges on a deal.)

Argott's film focuses on the decades-long battles by area power brokers to gain control of the Barnes Foundation and its prized inventory of Picassos (46), Cézannes (69), Matisses (59), and Renoirs (181) - not to mention its hotly debated relocation from Lower Merion to a site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The documentary presents a kind of high-culture conspiracy theory, going so far as to display a cop-show-like "suspects board" with photographs of civic and cultural leaders linked in their alleged efforts to usurp the Barnes' deed and influence the foundation's board.

But something else The Art of the Steal does - and perhaps this is why it has resonated with audiences - is make Barnes, the pharmacological-entrepreneur-turned-art-maven, human again.

"I was trying to bring Barnes back to life, and really set the film through his eyes," says Argott, at the bustling Sutton Place hotel.

"Over the years, he's become a name on a slab of concrete. He's not a real person. And when you're just a name, when it's just 'the Barnes Foundation,' that doesn't mean anything," says Argott, who directed the 2005 documentary Rock School about the Paul Green School of Rock.

"You can see that this was a guy that was very passionate about what he was doing. This was very important to him. So important that he put very strict instructions together about how he wanted things to be when he was no longer there."

Barnes died in a car crash in 1951 - and the struggles over his foundation, educational programs, and collection have not stopped since.

"That, for us, was really the impetus," says Argott. "To bring Barnes back."

In doing so, Argott lays out a persuasive case that a circle of Philadelphia movers and shakers - among them Gov. Rendell, then-Mayor John F. Street, Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca Rimel, billionaire Raymond Perelman, and H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest of the Lenfest Foundation - orchestrated the Barnes' move from leafy Latchs Lane to new digs just blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Ironically, Barnes' historic Merion home was designed by French architect Paul Philippe Cret, who also did the master plan for the Ben Franklin Parkway, the Barnes' new address.)

Argott's The Art of the Steal opens with the Sept. 5, 2007, City Hall news conference announcing the Barnes' relocation. Street gleefully tells reporters he was riding his bike through Merion a few days earlier and happened to pedal past the Barnes. He says he waved and shouted, "See you soon - in the city of Philadelphia on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway!"

The Pew's Rimel declined Argott's requests for an interview. Asked to respond to the film's assertions that she worked behind the scenes to wrest the priceless collection from its original home, Rimel released a statement yesterday: "I have not seen the film, therefore I am uninformed and it would be inappropriate for me to comment."

Rendell, however, did sit down with the Philadelphia director and his crew - and is unabashed in acknowledging that the idea to take the financially shaky Barnes and move it to Center City came out of a discussion, in the mid-'90s, with Perelman (whose name is on the Art Museum addition near the Barnes' new site). Having the Barnes on the Parkway, says Rendell, will be a boon to Philadelphia's tourism industry.

When called yesterday, Rendell, through his press secretary, declined to elaborate on his remarks in the movie.

The Art of the Steal is based in part on author John Anderson's Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection. The film also cites the disclosure by Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight that $100 million in state funds had been line-itemed for the Barnes' relocation 13 months before a Montgomery County court heard final arguments from the Friends of the Barnes group challenging the proposed move. Ultimately, $30 million in state funds has gone to the Barnes.

The film also touches on an inherent problem with the Friends of the Barnes' keep-it-in-Merion movement - namely, that after years of the Barnes' being a jewel-box museum with a severely restrictive admissions policy, its doors were opened in an effort to raise much-needed cash. Tour buses and cars started rolling up and down the street, and the neighbors were not pleased. In some ways, the NIMBY-ism of Merion residents served as a catalyst to decamp the Barnes.

As for Rendell's on-camera comments, Argott says: "It's not a conspiracy theory when somebody says this is how this whole thing came to be. . . . It's so matter of fact, the way that Rendell states it, the way that it's played, that it almost doesn't seem shocking. 'Well, this is what happened: A guy came into my office and said we should get at them and try to get this thing downtown . . .'

"And that's like business as usual. There's no feeling that they are doing anything wrong. And that's fine. . . . That's really up to the court of public opinion, at this point."

Derek Gillman, executive director of the Barnes Foundation, made a trip to see the film in Toronto Monday night.

"As a piece of technical filmmaking . . . I thought it was well-done," he says. "But I don't think there was any new information in it. For those of us who have been within or following the Barnes saga for the last several years, it was all familiar. Of course, seeing it filmically is different from seeing it in newsprint. . . .

"But I didn't hear any new allegations. . . . The story has been out there for quite the while, as presented both from the Barnes' side and as presented from the Friends of the Barnes' side."

He adds: "It's probably going to strike people outside of Philadelphia as more interesting, insofar as Philadelphians have been living with this story."

Gillman says he initially declined to cooperate with Argott because "the signal that I got was that this was going to be a pretty one-sided event." Having seen it, he says, "It is clearly one-sided."

As for the new Barnes, Gillman says ground will be broken this fall. "We'll complete the building at the end of 2011," he promises, "and we'll open in 2012."

Meanwhile, The Art of the Steal - with never-before-seen 16mm footage of a happy Barnes traipsing around Europe with his beloved pooch, Fidèle - screens again at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 29. It's quite a tale.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/ blogs/onmovies/