For Laemmle and Landmark audiences weaned on the Iranian films — with their wise children, stunning landscapes and Russian-doll narratives — that began appearing here in the early 1990s, it may come as a surprise that the same Islamist republic known for its cinema of minimalist poetry and quiet resistence is also home to a thriving commercial cinema of broad comedies, action spectacles and domestic melodramas. Though produced primarily for the domestic market (as opposed to the international film-festival circuit), such fare has been making its way with increasing frequency to America’s Iranian diaspora communities, courtesy of an enterprising San Francisco–based distribution outfit called the Iranian Film Society. And like mass-audience films from Hollywood to Bombay, at their best these Persian crowd pleasers can reveal as much about the fabric of Iranian culture as their more sophisticated art-house brethren.

Friday’s Soldiers, from writer-director Massoud Kimiai, a key figure of the 1970s Iranian New Wave, begins with a nifty title sequence (designed by Abbas Kiarostami, in an about-face from his own ultra-minimalist work) that turns a military march into a rhythmic collage of uniformed bodies in motion, then segues to a story of four soldiers on leave who discover that their own petty squabbles are nothing compared to the lurid personal crises (murder, kidnapping, substance abuse) engulfing various family members. Despite enough soap-opera theatrics for a Jerry Springer episode, as Friday’s Soldiers hones in on one soldier’s plight to rescue his despondent sister from drug addiction, it develops into an acute, unsparing portrait of moral corruption in contemporary Tehran.

Somewhat, if not entirely, lighter of heart, Mehdi Fakhimzadeh’s Soul Mate plays like a cross between Mr. Mom and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as middle-aged bachelor Behrouz (played by Fakhimzadeh himself), recently released from a mental institution, hooks up with a single mother (Roya Nonahali) and her two young children — only to find that she’s loonier than he is. With an elastic face and bulging eyes, Fakhimzadeh, a sort of Middle Eastern Jerry Lewis, makes a great comic patsy, but what gives Soul Mate its soul is the way Fakhimzadeh (as writer-director) uses humor to investigate a fairly grave subject: the fearful, shame-inducing gaze directed by society’s “normals” upon those who bear the taint of institutionalization.

FRIDAY’S SOLDIERS | Written and directed by MASSOUD KIMIAI | Produced by MORTEZA SHAYESTEH | Released by Iranian Film Society | At Laemmle’s Music Hall

SOUL MATE | Written and directed by MEHDI FAKHIMZADEH | Produced by MORTEZA SHAYESTEH | Released by Iranian Film Society | At Laemmle’s Music Hall

LA Weekly