Ingmar Bergman's three-hour character study, "The Best Intentions," is more intimate and piercing than any screen portrait in recent memory. An autobiographical look at his parents' courtship and the early years of their marriage, Bergman's film is penetrating and unflinching as it creates fascinating but flawed characters in a relationship that is difficult at best.

Not that Henrik and Anna are unsympathetic. But Bergman's screenplay, which is both spare and probing, is so much more realistic in its approach to human nature than what we're used to, it may take American audiences aback.

Though the 74-year-old Bergman wrote the script, he left the directing this time to Billie August, who did the stunning "Pelle the Conqueror" some years ago. (There is also a six-hour TV miniseries version of "The Best Intentions," which aired last year in Scandinavia.)

Together, Bergman and August have created a remarkable film, occasionally epic in nature but always focused on the two central characters, following them for 10 years, beginning in 1909.

Henrik Bergman is studying for the ministry when he meets Anna Akerblom through her brother. They are attracted to each other, but Henrik is nearly destitute and living with a waitress. Anna's family, on the other hand, is quite wealthy and her mother is determined to keep them apart.

In fact, Mrs. Akerblom goes to some extreme lengths to separate Henrik and Anna — and to keep them separated. When her deception is ultimately revealed, there are some very hard feelings between Anna and her mother.

This rather rocky courtship comprises the first half of the movie, which then segues into the early stages of their marriage. Henrik's first calling is to a small congregation in a northern province where the weather is bitterly cold and the landscape is stark and harsh . . . and the people aren't much warmer.

In a perverse way, this appeals to Henrik, however, since he seems to enjoy suffering. But Anna, who is used to comfort, has a difficult time of it. Still, she dives in and becomes the perfect pastor's wife — until Henrik is offered a plum parish in Stockholm and turns it down. This incident, combined with a near tragedy involving their own young son and a boy they take in, drives Anna to a drastic decision.

"The Best Intentions" is full of high drama, but the low-key, matter-of-fact telling makes everything fall into order quite naturally. High drama, in this case, does not really mean big, explosive scenes.

As for the characters, Henrik is introverted and seems meek and even weak on the outside, which masks a stubborn will and inability to communicate — and, occasionally, a rather vile temper. He's also quite strict in some of his religious views, though surprisingly lax in other areas.

Meanwhile, Anna is equally stubborn and somewhat spoiled, with strong views of her own. Naturally, these two temperaments don't exactly meld into a marriage made in heaven. But in the end, as Anna is presumably carrying young Ingmar, Henrik is humbled and the film leaves us on a note of hope for the couple.

The performances here are superb, with Samuel Froler making Henrik fittingly solitary, yet sympathetic; Ghita Norby is also excellent as Anna's mother, a character of complexity who is, at first, hard to care about, though that changes somewhat over the course of the picture; and, in a smaller role, Max von Sydow is wonderful as Anna's father, the acquiescing patriarch in failing health.

But it is Pernilla August (wife of the film's director), playing Anna, who really shines. It is quite refreshing to see someone in a lead role who is far from the image of classic beauty that dominates most films, and therefore someone with whom the audience more readily identifies. And her performance is so natural that she is completely believable, from her early scenes as the object of Erik's love to moments late in the film that require her to look haggard and worn by her experiences. Along the way, she conveys a wide range of emotions, often with just an expression while the camera lingers in closeup.

Though there are moments here and there that bring to mind Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" (it is, in a way, a sequel to that film), "The Best Intentions" is an original work of great power. And for those familiar with Bergman's work, it answers some questions about his running themes and attitudes, especially toward relationships and religion.

It is also slow going and therefore somewhat taxing to the viewer. But the rewards are more than worth the trouble.

"The Best Intentions" is rated R for sex and nudity, along with some violence and profanity.