CANNES, France -- Iranian Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who lives in exile following a smear campaign about her love life, wept with joy as she won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday.
Ebrahimi, 41, won for "Holy Spider", in which she plays a journalist trying to solve the serial murders of prostitutes in the holy city of Mashhad.
"I have come a long way to be on this stage tonight. It was not an easy story," she told the audience at the awards ceremony.
She said she had been "saved by cinema".
"It was humiliation but there was cinema, it was solitude but there was cinema, it was darkness but there was cinema. Now I'm standing in front of you on a night of joy."
"Holy Spider", directed by Danish-Iranian Ali Abbasi, is inspired by the true story of a working-class man who killed prostitutes in the early 2000s and became known as the "Spider Killer".
Abbasi was denied permission to film in Iran and it was ultimately shot in Jordan.
Ebrahimi became a star in Iran in her early twenties for her supporting role in one of its longest-running soap operas, "Nargess".
But her life and career fell apart shortly after the show ended, when a sex tape was leaked online in 2006 which, it was claimed, featured her.
- 'About women' -
Ebrahimi's character in "Holy Spider" has also been a victim of lascivious rumours and male predation.
The film suggests there was little official pressure to catch the murderer, who ends up a hero among the religious right.
"This film is about women, it's about their bodies, it's a movie full of faces, hair, hands, feet, breasts, sex -- everything that is impossible to show in Iran," Ebrahimi said.
"Thank you, Ali Abbasi for being so crazy and so generous and for directing against all odds this powerful thing."
At an earlier press conference following the film's premiere, Ebrahimi said that she had been inspired by her real journalist friends in Iran.
"I know the difficulties they face every day," she said. "Many of my journalist friends, especially women, left Iran just after me."
- 'Everyday life' -
Abbasi insisted the film should not be seen as controversial.
"Everything shown here is part of people's everyday life. There is enough evidence that people in Iran have sex, too. There's ample evidence of prostitution in every city of Iran," he said.
Ebrahimi grew up in Tehran where she went to drama school, making her first film at 18, and quickly became known for playing wise and morally upstanding characters.
In 2006, Iranian investigators began probing a video widely distributed on the black market that purported to show the young soap star making love to her boyfriend.
The leak's author, facing arrest, fled the country. Ebrahimi said at the time that she was the victim of an "immoral campaign". The case became so high-profile that Tehran's chief prosecutor handled it personally.
Ebrahami then moved to Paris, speaking no French, and kept afloat with odd jobs.
"I knew nothing about the film industry in France," she told daily Le Monde. "There was nobody to help me. It took me two or three years to figure out where I had landed."
At the awards ceremony she thanked France, calling her adopted homeland "exotic, paradoxical -- happy but loves to be unhappy".
"Holy Spider" drew several strong reviews in Cannes, with The Hollywood Reporter saying it was "equal parts gripping and disturbing, and not always for the squeamish".
The Guardian called the movie a "strangely fictionalised account", but added that "Abbasi undoubtedly conveys the brutal attitudes which create victimhood".
© Agence France-Presse