The Top Five

Latin America's intractable political problems—the sort laid bare in "The Lost Revolution," have made the region a target for screwball satire. When Woody Allen takes a crack at Banana Republicanism, the result can be sublime, but in lesser hands the "comedy" can devolve into a stereotype-laden burlesque. Here, five visions of Latin politics gone south.

Bananas. Woody Allen. United Artists. 1971.
Allen is at his most irreverent as Fielding Melish, a brokenhearted product tester who falls in with the Cuban-styled revolutionaries of "San Marcos." When the new president goes mad, declaring Swedish the official language and mandating that citizens change their underwear every half hour, Melish must take the helm. Nothing is sacred here—Howard Cosell does play-by-play calls for both a political assassination and Melish's wedding night.

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Moon Over Parador. Paul Mazursky. Universal. 1988.
Richard Dreyfuss plays a B actor who gets rooked into impersonating the deceased dictator of "Parador." Dreyfuss (above) must salute and mumble well enough to fool the masses—how hard could that be in a country whose national anthem is sung to "O Tannenbaum"? Authoritarianism proves a tricky comic premise, however, as in the decidedly unfunny scene in which the army torches a small village.

The Three Caballeros. Norman Ferguson. Disney. 1945.
This WWII-era propaganda cartoon hoped to boost sympathy for the Allies in Latin America, and so shies away from overt ridicule. But Donald Duck's compadres in the film are a Brazilian parrot and a vaguely offensive gun-toting rooster named Panchito. Less diplomatic is Donald's aggressive interspecies heterosexuality: His "magic serape" ride in pursuit of Acapulco's bikini babes must have generated an ambiguous brand of goodwill.

Walker. Alex Cox. Incine. 1987.
From director Alex Cox, whose comic sensibilities were far better suited to Repo Man, comes this screwy historical satire. Ed Harris stars as American soldier of fortune William Walker, who plundered Nicaragua in the 1850s. The film's laughable incongruities—19th-century aristocrats reading Newsweek, Walker's troops ßeeing in helicopters—were intended to give Walker resonance in the era of Iran-Contra, but instead make the entire endeavor impossible to take seriously.

The In-Laws. Arthur Hiller. Warner Bros. 1979.
In this farcical romp, Peter Falk plays a cia operative whose son is about to wed the daughter of a mild-mannered dentist, played by Alan Arkin. Falk cons his feckless future in-law into helping him sell U.S. mint engraving plates to Generalissimo Garcia—the loony dictator of "Tejada," who takes his marching orders from a talking hand named Se–or Pepe. When a cia-backed coup disrupts the plot, the in-laws nonetheless abscond with $10 million—proving you don't have to be a dictator to loot a small Latin American country.