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.
Ebrahimi, 41, won for Holy Spider, in which she plays a journalist trying to solve the serial murders of prostitutes in Iran’s holy city of Mashhad.
“I have come a long way to be on this stage tonight. It was not an easy story. It was humiliation but there was cinema,” she told the audience in her acceptance speech on Saturday.
Directed by Danish-Iranian Ali Abbasi, Holy Spider was inspired by the true story of a working-class man who killed prostitutes in the early 2000s and became known as the “Spider Killer”.
The film was not permitted to shoot in Iran and instead was made in Jordan.
Ebrahimi became a star in Iran in her early 20s for her supporting role in one of its longest-running soap operas, Nargess.
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 told the audience.
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”.
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 told reporters.
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 she was the victim of an “immoral campaign”. The case became so high-profile that Tehran’s chief prosecutor handled it personally.
“They wanted to delete me from everywhere, remove me from cinema. Maybe to [commit] suicide, to die. But in the end I’m here with this award,” she said at a post-award news conference.
Ebrahimi 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.”
Ebrahimi added: “I still love Iran. It’s my beloved country, my first country and I love all those Iranian people – even all those who destroyed my life.”