Born at Luzzara, near Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, on 20 September 1902, Zavattini studied law at the University of Parma, but devoted himself to writing. In 1930 he relocated to Milan, and worked for the book and magazine publisher Angelo Rizzoli. After Rizzoli began producing films in 1934, Zavattini received his first screenplay and story credits in 1936. In 1935, he met Vittorio De Sica, beginning a partnership that produced some two dozen films, including such masterpieces of Italian neorealism as Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946), Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, American release title, The Bicycle Thief, 1948), Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951) and Umberto D. (1952)
In the unique experience in Hollywood, Zavattini written for the screen The Children of Sanchez (1978) based on Oscar Lewis’s book of the same title, a classic study of a Mexican family.
Zavattini died in Rome on 13 October 1989.